Being a Good Bad Guy

I spent a few years as a professor. And sometimes, my students were not happy.

A few years ago, I spent a semester teaching as a Fulbright Scholar in Singapore. It was an amazing experience that I still tell stories about to this day, but there was one speed bump: I gave a midterm exam. Apparently, I was the only prof in the department who committed such a horrible act. This was in addition to a final exam and a research paper, which from seemed to be all that the other profs were requiring.

Now, just for the record, I hate grading with a passion. It is the one part of teaching I simply did not enjoy. It is time-consuming, it can lead to hurt feelings, and it makes my head hurt. And did I mention it is time-consuming? Oh yeah, I did.

So I obviously did not give a midterm just to satisfy some internal urge to inflict pain on my students, because I was inflicting it on myself, too. So why do it?

Well, when I was in grad school I got really nervous in those courses where the only grade was the final exam. I had no idea how I was doing — at least, in the professor’s eyes — until it was too late to do anything about it. So, I figured this gave my students a chance to check themselves (and also allow me to know if I am communicating to them as well as I need to) at a relatively low cost if it turns out they are having trouble. It gives them the remaining half of the semester to fix any problems they are having. Also, it lets me see how an exam can go (since this was my first time teaching at this school) and would help me as I write the final exam, which is worth 2 1/2 times what this little test was worth.

To them, I may seem like a “bad guy” because I am making them take an exam. But to me, that makes me a “good bad guy” since I know it will help them in the end.

So how does this relate to you in your leadership role?

Do not be afraid of “tough love” Few of us want to be the “bad guy,” but if you are good at it, able to be effective in your business without creating a poor work environment, then that is a leadership skill you can be proud of. You need highly skilled workers, and by identifying and correcting mistakes you can help them develop into better workers in the future.

Be honest about why you’re doing things so the lessons can hit home The only way this “tough love” really helps is if your employees understand why it is necessary. Some things are not always obvious and you may need to explain yourself. Transparency and honesty are important when you are trying to develop your employees’ abilities.

Encourage solutions rather than just criticizing Avoid being quick to pin blame on someone without offering suggestions of how you can collectively improve next time. Employees will respect you more, and you will have a better chance of problem-solving, if you try to find solutions.

Be tactful If you have a harsh tone when you approach an employee, you will immediately put them on the defensive. Speaking down to anyone, especially in front of other people, will reflect worse on you than on the person who made a mistake. Honesty is important, but you do not need to belittle people to make your point.

Worry less about your image and reputation and more about the importance of success Being a leader is not a popularity contest, and you do not need for your employees to be your friends. At the same time, do not purposely try to get a reputation as a super-harsh boss, as you will alienate employees and make it less likely they will come to you with a problem on their own. Balance your style in a way that brings success.

Do not be a jerk just because you can Employees want, and deserve, to be treated with respect. Do not abuse your authority, but instead, use it to the extent necessary for success. Firing someone by e-mail instead of in-person, for instance, causes your other employees to wonder just what kind of leader you are and if perhaps they will be treated the same way.

By the way…it is OK to be the good guy, too, when things go well. Being able to switch back and forth also allows your employees to read you better if they know how you display your different moods.

It is very challenging to be a “bad guy” in the workplace. Your employees (hopefully) take pride in their work, and they may take personally any challenge to their abilities or to the work they produce. But your job is to turn out the best possible product or service, so you need to be willing and able to wade into that uncomfortable swamp of correcting, reprimanding, and occasionally even firing, to make that happen.

If all else fails, give ’em a midterm