Management Skills: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

President Theodore Roosevelt; Photographer unknown; Pre 1900I swore I wasn’t going to be one of those parents who would toss empty threats at their kids to try to coerce them into good behavior. You know the old, “If you don’t stop I swear we’re not going to the park,” routine. I can hear my son thinking, “Who you kidding dad? The car is packed. We’re going even if I do choose to violently unmake my bed right before your very eyes.”

Our manliest and perhaps most awesomest president Teddy Roosevelt had a famous saying: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Other variations of this timeless parenting, leadership, management, and overall personal integrity advice are as follows:

  • “Talk is cheap”
  • “If you’re gonna talk the talk you gotta walk the walk”
  • “Do what you say you’re going to do”
  • “Say what you mean and mean what you say”
  • “Actions speak louder than words”
  • “People won’t remember what you say, but they’ll remember how you made them feel”

Parents’ empty threats to kids don’t work, and business managers trying to threaten their employees to perform is equally futile.

The threat of disciplinary action is implicit in the manager-employee relationship. In other words, the employee inherently knows the manager can write-up or fire the employee. So what’s the point of making consequences explicit?

Threats are just a form of workplace bullying, and we all know how popular bullies are these days.

paper tiger
Paper tiger

I’ll tell you what paper-tiger bosses do achieve:

  • A resentful and vengeful team, waiting to have their revenge on the next employee survey or HR visit
  • A low-trust environment as the employees will not believe a word that comes out of the boss’ mouth
  • High employee turnover, especially among top performers who quickly flee to the competition
  • Poor long-term performance metrics, like compounded annual growth rate of sales or profits over five or ten years

The only thing worse than one-on-one threats is what I’ve heard called “mass scolding.” This is the thing where the boss yells at the entire team on a conference call or sends an email chastising everyone because one employee out of the group broke a rule or something. Rather than having the courage to address the one bad apple, the manager spoils the bunch by yelling at the whole group. This technique is pathetic and only achieves the four bullets above faster.

I don’t believe in threats, but I do believe in candor, integrity, standards, accountability, and an aggressive approach to measuring performance and upgrading bottom 10% performers. How can you achieve these lofty management virtues without using threats?

Easy. Don’t threaten, instead:

  • Have detailed and honest face to face conversations with employees about your expectations. Don’t assume your team knows what you’re looking for in terms of performance and standards.
  • If you’ve drawn a red-line you better back it up with actions like using progressive discipline the way your company prescribes every time someone crosses the line.
  • Force rank employees based on your company’s key performance indicators. Address the bottom performers with coaching, training, and eventually accountability.
  • Realize that not all the turtles make it to the sea. Remove thieves, slackers, and intentional wrong-doers immediately. Continuously upgrade the talent of your team.
  • Always make good on your promises of both positive and negative consequence, and never make a promise you can’t keep.

As a manager I go with my uncle Teddy’s advice. I keep quiet and let my actions communicate who I am and what I stand for.

P.S.: Unrelated to the content above, if you think Teddy Roosevelt was awesome, you should read this wiki about his son Teddy Jr. who stormed the beach at Normandy as a general at the age of 56 while walking with a cane, started WW2 for the Americans, and won a medal of honor for his unspeakable valor. What a bloodline!