THE HAIRDRYER TREATMENT
How do we best motivate the people around us?
‘It’s not binary, you can be a decent person and gifted’ mourns Steve Wozniak towards the end of the film Steve Jobs; the verdict of one co-founder of Apple on the other.
This is a second Aaron Sorkin scripted film about a tech giant who changed the world but couldn’t figure out the women closest to them. The Social Network charted the rise of Facebook in the life of its Harvard drop-out founder Mark Zuckerberg; the eponymous Steve Jobs chronicles his rise and fall and rise against the background of a painful relationship with a daughter where paternity was first denied. A common theme emerges of brilliant, driven self-starters who seem incapable of harmonious relationships.
In Jobs’ case, credible, sourced allegations of bullying both demoralised and belittled those around him. Convinced of his own rightness, Jobs would not allow emotion to get in the way of ruthless logic; he was a force of nature whom others were either awed or appalled by or both at the same time. George Bernard Shaw once said: ‘the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man’. This may be a perfect epitaph for the life of Steve Jobs, but is it true?
Where we stand on this question emerges from a mixture of personality and preference. Those who find it easy to make tough decisions but find it hard to get on with others will tend to agree with Shaw; those who privilege friendship over hard choices won’t. To one extent or other, many of us exercise a form of management over others, whether it is in the home or at work, so it is worth spending some time considering how we lead others.
The research of Professor Christine Porath of Georgetown University, stretching over twenty years has shown that employees work less well if managers are rude to them. Sickness rates, mental health, creativity and staff retention are all affected by bosses who are coercive and unpleasant in the way they seek to motivate others. This has been popularised by the so-called hairdryer treatment which Alex Ferguson would give players at half-time when their performance was below par. Some people may respond to this well, and perhaps those who express their work through physical effort may need a kick up the rear from time to time, but it is a case of knowing your audience and their context.
Most people usually become resentful and discouraged when others say sharp things to them and it is not good management to pretend otherwise. The assumption that leaders should be hard and unyielding to those in their charge may be a form of narcissism, that the only way to get others to rise to your own effortless level of performance is to beat them with a stick. The Christian faith lays great store by the development of personal character and the idea that leaders should imitate Christ and model behaviour that attracts others to him. The call to nurture and encourage the faithful compels a particular way of leadership. The catch comes when a harder edge is required.
Leadership sometimes asks people to make choices which are both binding on others and resented by them, actions which are made harder by a shallow view of pastoral care which assumes the person in front of them must be placated above all else. Many Christian leaders carry lingering guilt because of this faulty belief. To love someone is to do the right thing by them, which is not always the thing they want out of us.
To submit to George Bernard Shaw’s dictum that progress is only made by unreasonable people nevertheless flies in the face of both the Gospel imperative of encouragement and the secular evidence around motivation. The world is littered with the wreckage caused leaders who bullied others into their way of thinking but we tend instead to notice the bullies who happened to be right in the end and thus draw the wrong conclusions. A disciple of Christ develops their personal character and their spiritual charisma. The fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. It’s not binary. We can be decent people and gifted. In fact it’s what we are called to be.
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