Why CEOs Talk Tough to Staff, and Why Tender Works Better

Last Updated Apr 9, 2010 3:38 PM EDT

On a flight back from London on British Airways the day after the end of the flight attendants' strike, one employee said, "We know the company is facing difficulties, and we're willing to help. But don't they know that praise goes a lot further than fear?" I have heard similar sentiments from other employees at United--where there is a very punitive policy toward taking sick days--and from numerous workers not in the airline industry.

The comments are empirically correct but apparently hard for senior management to do. The truth of the statements and the difficulty of implementing them are both important.

Beginning with the famous learning theorist B. F. Skinner, research has consistently shown that positive reinforcement--rewarding desired behavior--is more effective than punishment for increasing the likelihood of people doing what you want them to do. In fact, O. C. Tanner, a company that sells both trinkets and also reward and recognition programs to companies, describes the importance of rewards in The Carrot Principle. The book reports on empirical research documenting how effective recognition can be. Add it to the body of knowledge accumulated over the years by people such as management scholar Fred Luthans of the University of Nebraska, and you have compelling evidence for the wisdom of implementing Skinner's insights.

If there is so much anecdotal and systematic evidence--and even simple common sense--to support using praise and kindness, why is it used so infrequently? In Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions, naval history professor Zachary Shore suggests an answer. Shore describes what he calls "exposure anxiety"--the fear of being exposed or labeled as "weak." He notes that more than a fear, many people believed that not acting tough will cause others to take advantage of them and see them as weak and spineless--not a good image for a leader.

You see this all the time at work. Management and organizational behavior are sometimes labeled as "soft" subjects--compared, I presume, to the "hard" disciplines of economics, finance, and accounting. In my education and training work, when I describe companies that take a positive, inclusive, strong-culture building approach to their employees--places like kidney dialysis provider DaVita or the Andean region of Kimberly-Clark where Sergio Nacach doubled sales and tripled earnings in about four years--the response is the same. This approach seems soft, mushy, and doesn't signal the toughness that executives want to display.

Here again social psychology has some important insights. The two fundamental criteria we use to evaluate others are competence and warmth. But as Harvard business school professor Teresa Amabile described in an aptly titled article, "Brilliant But Cruel," the problem is that we often see competence and warmth as being negatively related--warm people don't appear as intelligent or skilled as those that are meaner.

You would think that these dynamics wouldn't apply as much to CEOS--already at the top of their companies, they presumably don't need to worry as much about their image and ought to be more concerned with creating shareholder value by managing their workforce in a way that provides higher levels of business performance. But many CEOs do care about what their peers think about them, and therefore make the trade-off to be unduly tough and mean and underutilize kindness, praise, and rewards with their workforce.

Making the same mistakes over and over again is not inevitable or preordained--it's why I write this column, to help you do better. Now that you understand both the evidence for the comparative effectiveness of rewards over punishments and the psychological barriers to acting on this knowledge, you should be more motivated and maybe even capable to, as the song says, "try a little tenderness."

  • Jeffrey Pfeffer

    Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he has taught since 1979. Pfeffer has authored or co-authored 13 books on topics including power, managing people, and evidence-based management. He has lectured in 34 countries and has been a visiting professor at London Business School, Harvard Business School, Singapore Management University, and IESE in Barcelona. Pfeffer has served on the board of directors of several human-capital software companies, as well as other public and nonprofit boards.