One day, during a particularly boring stretch at church, I leaned back and noticed, for the first time, the laminated beams supporting the chapel’s roof. The beams reminded me of my summer job after my freshman year of college when I worked at a plant that made (any guesses?) laminated beams.
I didn’t really earn that job; I sort of cheated my way in. It began when I stopped by the mill where my dad had worked for the ten years before he and mom moved to Arizona. I didn’t move south with them (I went off to college instead), so I was sleeping on my grandfather’s couch and putting around in his 1943 Dodge. I desperately needed a paying job so I could (1) return to college in the fall and (2) not be a hobo.
“We don’t have any openings,” Leo, the plant manager, brusquely stated.
“Thanks,” I responded. Then, as an afterthought, I added, “Dad says ‘hello.’”
“You aren’t Pat Patterson’s son, are you?” Leo asked.
“Hey!” Leo barked to a lanky fellow who had just walked into the office. “This kid here is Pat Patterson’s son. He’s going to work with us this summer.” And that’s how I landed the job.
When I started work the next day, Leo introduced me to Clyde, a massive, six-foot-six, grey-bearded, perpetually scowling and complaining fellow in his mid-fifties. The guy surely would have carried the nickname “Grumpy,” had the Disney cartoon been fashioned after a story known as Snow White and the Seven Tight Ends. Clyde was making use of his muscled frame by stacking boards onto a pallet. I was assigned to be his helper. To get me started, Clyde wrote down a list of board lengths on a small blackboard. From several stacks of varying-sized boards that he had placed around us with a forklift, Clyde was to find the first board on the list and place it on an empty pallet. I was to find and stack the second board, and so forth.
“Any questions? Clyde asked.
Before I could reply, Clyde fetched a board and we were off and running. At first I was worried because I couldn’t always tell the lengths apart, but I seemed to be doing okay. Every once in a while Clyde would send me to a different stack, until, board-by-board, we eventually completed the job. I smiled widely, thinking I had done well.
“You see where the stack ends?” Clyde asked me as he shook his head in disgust. “The empty space means you skipped a board and now I have to unstack the pallet until I find your #%&*# mistake.”
As unnerving as it was to be cursed at by an oversized Disney character, it only got worse. Clyde grabbed a massive board from the pallet, threw it on the floor, and cursed me some more for screwing up. He then grabbed, threw, and cursed twenty-two more boards until he worked his way back to my mistake. Finally, still using scary threats and age-inappropriate language, he restacked the pallet correctly. I wanted to die.
Seeing the distressed look on my face, Clyde stopped cursing, smiled, and laughed heartily. It had all been a show. He actually wanted me to foul up so he could yell at me and pitch a fit because “All employees needs a good kick in the pants to provide them with proper motivation.” And thus ended my first on-the-job leadership lesson. It was powerful, memorable, and totally wrong.
I didn’t need a kick in the pants. I was sleeping on my grandpa’s couch. I was by nature an uptight overachiever. I was desperate to do well on the job. Desperate. And yet Clyde thought I needed to be motivated—through verbal violence no less. And he’s not alone.
“I yell at my employees because it’s the only thing that works,” say a surprising number of leaders I’ve consulted with over the years. Parents often take a similar path with their kids. “They only respond to threats. So, I mostly threaten them.” Of course, when you interview the employees or the kids, they don’t subscribe to Hunter Thompson’s theory of leadership. That is, they don’t believe that the newest and hottest motivational tools are fear and loathing. They prefer respectful reasoning.
It’s a good bet that many people employ verbal violence as a motivational technique because they see it in action so often. Coaches yell at their players in front of thousands of fans—with little or no visible repercussions. When you ask them why they routinely use verbal violence, they pull out the, “It’s what they needed,” card. Or worse still, “It was good for them.” So when you discuss leadership in company training sessions, many justify their aggressive verbal violence by pointing to successful coaches who win because, “threats and insults are often your best tools.” People actually say that.
It’s true that there are times people do need to be motivated—maybe the work is noxious or boring, or they have different priorities. Maybe they simply don’t want to work. It doesn’t matter. But raising your voice, threatening, and otherwise verbally abusing others is never the correct tool. And for those of you who work in sophisticated, white-collar careers where visible, verbal violence isn’t tolerated—abusing others through subtle looks of disgust, sarcastic hints, and thinly veiled humor is equally abhorrent. Violence, in all of its sordid forms, is never acceptable.
I realize that I’m preaching to the choir. You wouldn’t dream of verbally assaulting another human being. But then again, you see so many others being verbally aggressive—from TV leaders, to coworkers, to people like Clyde who are purposely, even studiously, abrasive—it makes you wonder. So let’s remind each other why both blatant and subtle forms of verbal violence are never the right choice.
First, you can emotionally damage people by verbally abusing them. To quote Eric Idle: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will make me go in a corner and cry by myself for hours.” Second, employing verbal violence turns you into a person you don’t want to be. Remember that soul-sucking boss you loathed? Roll your eyes in disgust one more time and you’ve become that guy. Third, when nothing you do to motivate others actually works, you can always fall back on the company’s disciplinary procedures. You start with a verbal warning. Then comes a written warning, etc. Never does the company’s discipline process state: “First yell, then curse, and then throw a big board.”
So, if you’re toying with the idea of tearing into someone who “needs it”—don’t. Even if the other person was hired through egregiously nepotistic methods, he deserves your respect. Even if he left out, let’s say, an essential board and ruined the job, yelling will only make matters worse. Yelling a lot makes matters a lot worse. It all comes down to a simple ditty: Verbal abuse—never put it to use.
Words to live by.
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