Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Praise and Criticism

A basic rule of command, which I vaguely recall from long ago when I was (briefly and largely unsuccessfully in the Army) is, Praise in Public, Criticize in Private.

The purpose of this was not to spare a subordinate’s feelings. Indeed, the verbal ass-whipping delivered privately is often more candid and brutal than any public display of dissatisfaction.* Nor was the public praise designed to make a subordinate look better than his peers, or set him above everyone else.

*Having been the subject of several of these private dressing-downs, I can assure that even now, over fifteen years later, they stick with you. Even with my gap-prone memory, I can still recall the exact words used by my superiors when I dropped the ball, usually offered quietly and definitively, without hysterics or shouting. Believe me, they were no less effective despite their understated delivery.

The rational is simple: public praise provides a benchmark on which others can gauge their performance. If everyone knows what is expected, and those who meet the standard are publically recognized for it, that provides a powerful incentive for the rest to increase their performance. This is especially true in a hierarchical organization like the military or a large company.

Conversely, private criticism serves to reinforce the message by making it one of personal, rather than collective, responsibility. In addition, it prevents the public humiliation which can be so corrosive to job satisfaction, and hence job performance. Shouting at a subordinate who has failed in his duty may work in Marine Boot Camp, but beyond that is usually damaging and counter-productive.*

*Personally, I’m of the opinion the Marine Boot Camp (and to a lesser extent any service’s basic training) is probably not a suitable way to produce effective soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines. Sure, it creates a crop of young men, hardened and eager, but it also deprives them of much of their initiative and problem-solving skills. I suspect that those who go on to be exemplary soldiers were rarely the top-performers in basic training.

The Rug Merchant (aka The Boss) has somehow managed to misconstrue this time-honored convention and turn it on its head. No mistake is too trivial, no oversight too minor, to avoid a loud, public and near-hysterical screaming rebuke. These tirades, which always remind me a five-year old who has consumed too much sugar, serve little purpose other than to cow the recipient and smother any nascent efforts at improvement. Everyone here spends most of their time calculating how not to get yelled at, which makes them overly-cautious, slow to act and congenitally unable to shoulder any personal responsibility.

The rare instance of praise for his subordinates is…….well, actually, I can’t recall him ever praising one of the staff. I suppose it might have happened at one point, but if it did, I never heard of it. It’s as if, deep down, he believes that any demonstration that the rest of us are not a pack of useless morons might threaten his primacy.* Implicitly, if no one is worthy of praise, then no one is potentially as valuable as he is.

*It is certainly true that we have our fair share (and then some) of morons on our staff. However, it’s worth pointing out that all of them were personally hired and approved by The Rug Merchant. Most of them are friends of the family, or second cousins, or something like that.

As I write this, I’m in my office listening to The Rug Merchant scream incoherently at the assembled supervisors in a strained voice that makes it sound like he’s about to have a heart attack.*

*I should be so lucky.

He’s been going full-tilt now for about thirty minutes. My Farsi isn’t good enough to catch the nuances, but basically he’s claiming that none of the supervisors know their jobs (probably true), they’re all lazy and useless (partly true) and that only he has the ability to manage this operation (demonstrably false).

At some point, one would think that he would ask himself if perhaps, just perhaps, if there are systemic problems in the company, and one has insisted on retaining all decision-making authority, couldn’t the problem lie higher up the organizational ladder?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In my experience there are two types of leaders. The ones who gained their position by having a strong knowledge and ability of the job at hand, and those that got their position from know someone not something.

One leads through respect and confidence. The other through fear and intimidation.

on a seperate note, the post resembles the plot of the movie Office Space. "It only motivates someone to work hard enough to not get hassled"