Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

It’s Hard to Be a Soft Manager

January 1, 1992 -

Some people in management positions are doing a lot of rethinking about an alternative to the traditional us-versus-them way of managing. This may come as a surprise to those who are quick to dismiss all employers as members of the capitalist or enemy class. But fresh thinking and new approaches should be welcomed wherever they are found.

I am a soft manager. Unlike the classic leaders of business legend with their towering self-confidence, their unflinching tenacity, their hard, lonely lives at the top, I try to be vulnerable to criticism, I do my best to be tentative, and I cherish my own fair share of human frailty. But like them, I too have worked hard to master my management style, and, on the whole, I think it compares favorably with theirs. 

This is how William H. Peace, formerly an executive with Westinghouse and United Technologies and now a director of a management consultant firm in England, begins a fascinating article about his determined efforts to break through the often deep-seated animosity between labour and management. He explains that soft is not necessarily weak management, whereas hard-nosed management, though appearing to be strong and fearless, often hides serious and even fatal flaws.

Peace believes that openness to criticism and not being afraid to be vulnerable is the superior way of dealing with fellow human beings. He has a few stories to back up his opinion.

In the early 1980s, while he was a manager of a Westinghouse division, top management decided to divest itself of that operation. The division, which had already trimmed its workforce from 240 to 130, had to be in superb shape in order to be attractive to a prospective buyer. The alternative would be a complete shutdown and the layoff of all people, ending an effort to achieve a breakthrough in the coal gasification process which one day was expected to produce electric power from coal efficiently and economically. The employees, many of whom were highly skilled technicians and professionals, had worked hard and become closely identified with the project.

After a lot of consideration, Peace and his management team decided that 15 more staff would have to be laid off. Determining the persons to be laid off was difficult, but they finally agreed on a list of employees. Then they faced the unpleasant task of having to inform the selected individuals. Usually each department took on that task separately, but this time Peace decided that he would face the employees himself. The meeting was difficult and he was peppered with angry questions and accusations. But Peace took the heat and patiently explained the exact reasons for the decisions that had been taken. Although the layoff was still unpleasant, he felt that he had handled it in the right way.

Because he had been honest with the employees and faced their criticism and anger directly, his approach had left a good impression, also for those who stayed behind. He noticed a renewed determination to work together to save the company. As it turned out, the company was successfully sold and continued to operate. In fact, some of the people who were laid off were rehired. Everyone who was offered a job accepted, even though some of them had already found other employment.

A Vulnerable Style of Managing

Peace reported that a new sense of camaraderie and trust had developed at a difficult time. He believed that this turning point was reached because the employees realized that management would do everything in its power to keep the business alive and saleable. Layoffs were seen as extremely regrettable and a last resort. Above all, Peace believed that the success of his approach was "due in part to the fact that it made me vulnerable to the criticism, disapproval, and anger of the people we were laying off."

Peace describes a somewhat similar incident that confirmed his conviction about an open and vulnerable style of management. The events occurred at a plant of the Steam Turbine Division just south of Philadelphia, which at one time employed more than 10,000 people. This plant was a union stronghold with a terrible labour-management history. The person in charge of the plant, Gene Cattabiani, had an excellent reputation as a "people person," but the situation at this plant demanded extraordinary efforts on his part to tum things around. Nevertheless, that is exactly what happened.

The workers were represented by the Union of Electrical Workers, known to be extremely antagonistic to management. Its leaders were tough at the negotiating table and strikes were rough. In a lengthy 1956 strike, one person was shot to death outside the plant. Attitudes were polarized. Management viewed their workers as lazy and unreliable. Union members had an equally negative view of management.

When Cattabiani took over management of the plant it was in bad shape. Productivity and profits were down, and the mood on the shop floor was ugly. Cattabiani decided to make a determined effort to break through the workers' animosity. Instead of just having his vice president for labour relations talk to the union leaders, he began to address the entire workforce himself. This meant that he would have to make his presentation several times to groups of hundreds of workers.

The meetings turned out to be disastrous. Cattabiani spoke clearly and directly, informing the workers about the true state of affairs of the plant and the need for drastic changes if the division was to survive. The response of the workers was totally negative. They assumed that management was up to its usual tricks. They heckled the manager and shouted abuse and threats at him. He nevertheless persisted in making all the presentations. The reaction of the workers was the same at all the meetings, totally negative, cynical, and even abusive.

A Creature of Flesh and Blood

Nonetheless, a change occurred when Cattabiani went out on the factory floor, something which his predecessor had never done. The workers were surprised when they found that he would stop and talk to them about the meetings. When he detected a heckler during his inspection trips of the plant, he would walk over and say something like, "You really gave me a hard time last week," which often led to a response like, "Well, you deserved it, trying to pass off all that bull!" The exchanges invariably led to further dialogues, and the surprising thing that Peace noted was that the operators and mechanics began to listen to what Cattabiani had to say. Peace explains:

Suddenly, Gene was credible. He had ceased to be an ordinary useless manager and had become a creature of flesh and blood, someone whose opinions had some value. Gene was my boss, and I liked him for his warmth, honesty, and sense of humor. But I knew it had to be more than personality that won him respect in the eyes of that hard-bitten, cynical work force. 

Looking back on his experience at the Philadelphia plant, Peace realized that his boss had succeeded in breaking through the hostility and distrust of an antagonistic workforce by making himself available and by being honest with them. He did not avoid their criticism but responded to it. By confronting them directly and opening himself to their criticism, he gained their respect. He could have easily had someone else deliver the hard message, but he decided to do it himself. This is what gained him the respect of the workforce.

It was this change that set the tone for much improved union-management relations at the plant, accompanied by a change in work rules and the treatment of employees. As a consequence, the financial performance of the division improved dramatically. The lessons that Peace draws from these experiences is that a manager must be open and sensitive to the criticisms of those with whom he deals. He calls this the soft management approach, which is not the same as being fainthearted and weak-kneed. On the contrary.

It takes a certain courage to be open-minded, well-informed and responsible, to walk straight into adversity rather than seek to avoid it . . . It's more productive to listen to objections and complaints, to understand what subordinates are thinking and feeling, to open up to their arguments and their displeasure .... Being vulnerable to the give-and-take of ordinary emotional crossfire and intellectual disagreement makes us more human, more credible, and more open to change. 

It' s a message that deserves to be trumpeted from the roof tops. (See William H. Peace, "The Hard Work of Being a Soft Manager," Harvard Business Review, November-December 1991, pp. 40-47.)

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment