Workers prefer tough love

Nov 21 2007 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Would-be managers are often told they should aspire to being consensual, team-playing listeners. But in fact it is hard taskmasters who not are afraid to crack the whip to get the job done that are most valued by employees.

A study by the UK Institute of Leadership & Management has found that people would rather work for a tough boss who is successful than a lenient one who fails to deliver the goods.

Its poll of 1,500 managers, carried out with research firm AQR, found that, while qualities such as team-working and being focused on people were considered good attributes to have, when it came to delivering the goods, a bit of bloody-minded grit never went amiss.

The ILM's research echoes a U.S. study published earlier this year by academics at the University of Chicago which has suggested that, for chief executives, hard-nosed personal virtues such as persistence and efficiency count for more than "softer" strengths such team-working or flexibility.

The ILM study found that the majority of managers polled would choose a hard manager who exhibited a real commitment to deliver over and above "nicer" bosses who took more of an interest in them as people but failed to deliver.

The key, it argued, was less about whether a manager was being nasty or nice, but simply about how much they were focused on performance.

The Chicago University research, meanwhile, looked at the personal assessments of 313 chief executive candidates to get an idea of what made a good leader.

Of the 313, 225 were hired, with the academics also examining closely their subsequent performance.

It identified five CEO traits that correlated most closely with business success at buyout companies, and five that scored the lowest.

The top five traits that mattered were: persistence, attention to detail, efficiency, analytical skills and setting high standards.

Those considered less important were: strong oral communication, teamwork, flexibility or adaptability, enthusiasm and listening skills.

"We found that 'hard' skills, which are all about getting things done, were paramount," lead author Steven Kaplan, a professor of finance and entrepreneurship at the university, told the newspaper the Wall Street Journal, which has published the research.

"Soft skills centering on teamwork weren't as pivotal. That was a bit of a surprise to us," he added.

However, the survey was careful not to dismiss the value of the "soft" traits out of hand.

A trait such as enthusiasm was self-evidently useful to have. But the key was that an extremely enthusiastic manager was unlikely to fare much better than one who was just enthusiastic. The same would apply to traits such as listening skills or treating people with respect.

By comparison, the value of "hard" traits increased non-stop. A certain amount of flexibility could make for a better chief executive, for example, but too much could shade into indecisiveness.

Yet extra persistence, efficiency or standard setting would always be beneficial, it argued.