Senior managers with rough tongues not only demoralize their employees but erode their businesses as well. Sometimes they remain unaware of the damage until it’s too late to do anything but pick up the pieces.

Not Catherine. As CEO of a mid-size firm, her attention was caught by a 360-degree feedback survey which revealed that she was viewed as distant, unpleasant, and unkind. Anonymous questionnaires allowed staff to reveal that her style was costing the business money.

“I would not have guessed that the way I talk to my employees would cut into our profitability,” she said later. “I’ve always prided myself on a no-nonsense approach. I’m very direct and they know where they stand. I don’t waste their time or mine by saying they’re doing a good job if they aren’t.”

After harsh encounters with Catherine (not her real name), employees reported they would often spend several hours spinning their wheels, trying to recover confidence. Some managers admitted to avoiding decision-making, playing it safe to minimize the risk of being criticized.

Not surprisingly, productivity and profit were on the decline, while griping around the water-cooler was on the increase. There were even, the survey revealed, subtle instances of sabotage. “The whole thing left me confused,” Catherine recalled. “I’d taken courses in communication, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for this.”

Because she’s a committed learner, Catherine decided to analyze some critical incidents with the help of a leadership coach and test out more effective ways of communicating. She adopted three initiatives which were fine-tuned to her situation:

  • Balance critiques with affirming comments and show respect for genuine accomplishments. A leader who shows appreciation for employees’ good qualities, she learned, will earn the necessary credibility to request changes in behavior. It’s human nature to respond to praise with redoubled efforts.
  • Take a more positive approach to necessary criticisms. “Here’s exactly what I’d like you to do, and here’s why it will work” is more effective than, “This is all wrong. How many times do I have to explain it to you!”
  • Reveal yourself. Everyone on staff knows that you’re human, so it helps when you acknowledge the fact. There’s nothing unprofessional about revealing that you’re proud of your nephew, or that you were embarrassed today when you forgot someone’s name.

Catherine felt awkward and hesitant as she began to practice these ideas. Whenever she miscalculated or faltered in her resolve, she made sure the coach was there to encourage her. And as she saw improvements in the atmosphere at her firm, she grew more confident. Gradually, managers began to confide in her, and staff became more motivated.

till, she worried that she would not be able to sustain the changes. That’s when her coach asked if she understood what led her to treat employees the way she did.

Catherine thought about it for a moment. “Maybe it’s how I grew up. My parents never praised us as kids, and if we messed up, they were pretty harsh. In fact, I can remember hiding out in my closet after one confrontation with my dad.”

The conversation was pivotal. As Catherine realized that she had learned her harsh approach at a finite time and space in her life, she recognized she could confidently unlearn it too.

Yet a puzzle still remained. Why were her subordinates so frightened, she wondered, when she thought of them as her equals?

Then, on her car radio one recent morning, she listened as a member of the federal cabinet was questioned about his reputation for exploding at his staff. He brushed the question off with the comment that such outbursts are quickly forgotten.

He didn’t say by whom, of course.

Prodded by the interviewer, he related the story of a subordinate whom he had chewed out and who petulantly threatened to resign. A few days later, he said with just a hint of pride, this same employee blew up at him but he, the cabinet member, did not threaten resignation.

Catherine discussed the interview with her coach. “When a subordinate explodes, he seems to experience it just as I do. It’s like a mosquito bite — annoying but minor. So when I’m angry, why do my employees behave as if it’s thermonuclear?”

The coach pointed out that the imbalance of power between Catherine and her employees leaves them feeling vulnerable in every encounter. Even when they’re at their most confident, she remains the person with power to hire and fire, to reprimand and reward.

So even on days when she doesn’t feel very powerful, Catherine continues to remind herself that, for an employee, the workplace is never a level playing field. Only an aware leader can make it safe to take the kind of risks which lead to business success.

Of course, people don’t change their style overnight. Under stress, Catherine occasionally reverts to being acerbic with her staff. But because she is aware of her impact, she knows when to make amends.

Overall she has become more encouraging, and her people continue to respond. As her managers experience the rewards of fresh thinking, she’s seeing less activity around the water cooler and more at the shipping ramp.