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brain research don't be a terrible boss - man and woman in an office, man getting yelled at by woman

Brain Research: Don't Be a Terrible Boss

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Stefan Schumacher

There’s an anecdote about a leader who, upon being told by an employee about what appeared to be a huge error in a major project they were working, responded by saying, “I know you’re wrong, I just don’t know why yet.”

It's that kind of positive (read: extremely negative) reinforcement that just makes you want to put your head in your hands and give up. Yet many of us have had so called "terrible bosses" that leave us living in fear of making a mistake. Their demands are unreasonable, their expectations unreachable.

The argument for this type of leadership, though, is that when you're in charge you have to skip past niceties and push your employees further and harder than they thought they could be pushed. This is what increases sales, production, new ideas or whatever it is your business needs.

Perhaps there is no more famous (infamous?) example of this type of leadership than the late Apple Founder Steve Jobs. He was legendary for his tirades and sometimes even cruelty to the people working for him.

However, a new report from the Wall St. Journal appears to fly in the face of the Jobs model. It suggest that many of the more severe methods for executive leadership may not be all that effective. Things like tight deadlines, threating someone's job, dictatorial decision making and negative reinforcement.

What About Steve Jobs?

These findings are from something called neuroimaging - basically they study the brain to see how it reacts to certain situations. These tactics, according to the studies reported on, lead to a lack of creative thinking, poor choices and an expectation of negative outcomes.

But what about Jobs? Or Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg? Bill Gross? Are they known for patting people on the back and making group decisions? Not really.

Jobs once fired someone in front of a crowd of employees, among other things. And Larry Page of Google, he did the same thing, except he fired a bunch of people at once.

The thing was, these guys are geniuses, with multi-billion dollar ideas. Often these visionary genius types - Jobs, Frank Lloyd Wright, Kanye West - are less than stellar in their interpersonal dealings. And they're probably the exception to the rule.

The Workplace Reality Problem

The science is telling us that patting people on the back really does work. Job security works. Time for creativity works. Another study found that "two traits - warmth and competence - govern social judgments of individuals and groups, and these judgments shape people's emotions and behaviors."

It's all well and good, but how do you actually put it into practice? Especially when running a small business, where money and resources are often limited, and you have to count on fewer people to do more?

It's sort of like raising children. The studies say it's not good to yell at them, but it's hard to be that patient.

The pressures of work, managing your own business - the finances, the payroll, the IT, the HR - is not always going to allow for the freedom of extended deadlines or the wherewithal to be nice.

So How Do You Lead?

The best you can do is at least be self-reflective. Ask yourself at the end of the day or week if you've been a terrible boss? Did you need to yell? Did you blame someone for something that really wasn't their fault?

Try to give your employees more positive feedback than negative. If you have to continually give employees negative feedback, because they're really not getting the job done it may be time to ask, a) why are they there? and maybe b) how are you going about hiring people?

Remember that if you treat your employees like they're doing a bad job, the research is suggesting they'll probably do a bad job. Trust they're doing their best, and that you've made the right choice in hiring them, and keep an eye on the results.

Even Jobs had this kind of faith in people: "I'm an optimist in the sense that I believe humans are noble and honorable, and some of them are really smart. I have a very optimistic view of individuals."