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Verbal Abuse at Work: How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot
No one can afford to turn away potential customers, yet thousands of people are doing just that every day. They are also begging to be fired. Just ask Carol Bartz.
You may be familiar with her name. She was hired as CEO of Yahoo.com in 2009, and by September, 2011, she was fired. Why? The obvious reason is that the company was not doing well. But there was more: She was fired by telephone, something never done at an executive level where people are paid millions in salary (hers was $1 million plus stock equity of $18 million).
So what was going on?
According to the Wall Street Journal, Ms. Bartz had “an abrasive CEO style, including her frequent use of swear words.” What does “abrasive” really mean? People who use foul language usually do it in loud tones. They interrupt. They have an angry face, unapproachable body language. Often, it’s accompanied with put-downs, criticism, and name-calling. Was this her behavior? If so, she was verbally abusive.
Why would a CEO do that?
When a CEO lacks the people skills to explain her position and win over allies, they get frustrated. Instead of reflecting on how they can accomplish their goals, they flare up, compounding the original problem. All that drama does serve a purpose, though: It distracts others from the substance of the problem, and intimidates them from bringing up their own position. However, the distraction eventually comes to an end as we saw from the headlines that Ms. Bartz and Yahoo! are divorced.
It takes great courage for a leader to admit his or her limitations, yet that is the most rational approach to take. After all, the CEO of a major corporation can’t be expected to know everything about her company. No one could be an expert at all of it. The best leadership begins with honesty. The best leader assembles a great team to carry out the firm’s mission. And then that leader must defer to the judgment of those team members for specific decisions.
Apparently, Ms. Bartz did not do that. According to press reports cited in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carol_Bartz) instead of creating a team mentality, she kept her cards close to her vest. In other words, she took the burden of decisions on herself but was uncertain of their value.
Now, it could be that a CEO who lacked skills as well as the discernment to pick a good team could still fail. Nevertheless, a CEO who is honest about her limitations and civil in her discourse will still be well respected. She would be treated a whole lot better should she be let go. And she would have no problem finding her next job, probably at a level for which she is better suited.
As for Carol Bartz, I don’t know who would want an “abrasive” person on their team.
Yet, she still can redeem herself, and that is the message I hope every reader takes away from this post. We all make mistakes, sometimes bad ones. That’s okay. Life is all about learning: If you don’t learn from your actions, you’re not alive.
Ms. Bartz has to learn:
• To be honest with herself—and others—as to her limitations
• To respect her fellow workers, whether above or below her in the hierarchy and to act accordingly
• To trust her associates to have capabilities that she will rely on
These rules apply to companies of all sizes. I decided to write on this topic when I got a call from my son. He was looking for a car and had inquired of several dealers. One of them kept hounding him and hounding him. For several reasons, he didn’t feel confidence in this particular one and decided not to use him. All the pressure the dealer put on him didn’t help. Then came the clincher: In one of the numerous calls the dealer made, he asked my son what he had decided. My son politely said, “I’m looking at other options.” That should have been enough, but no. The dealer pressed him to explain and my son repeated the response. Then the guy just hung up on my son.
The hounding and the hanging up were all attempts to cover up the basic problem that made my son not want to go with that dealer. But verbal abuse just doesn’t work, as this story and the Carol Bartz story tell.
I said to my son, “I wonder how that man talks to his wife.” And I wonder how Carol Bartz gets along with her own family. Verbal abuse has a way of leaking over boundaries.
If verbal abuse is your problem in business, it’s probably a problem at home. It’s time to tackle it.