The Office “Bad Guys”

The following is an article published by the Wall Street Journal on October 13, 2015, and features comments from OperationsInc CEO David Lewis. To view the original article, please click here.


How Office “Bad Guys” Handle the Role

Whether they have to ax pet projects or fire people, some managers learn how to cope with being unpopular

by Sue Shellenbarger

 

WSJ_noTag_Black_001Most people want to be seen as good guys at the office, spreading warmth and cheer. Yet not everyone needs to be liked. Some thrive on, or at least find ways to handle, filling the role of the office bad guy.

These people do the dirty work: delivering negative feedback, axing cherished projects or laying people off. Thriving in the bad-guy role requires finding ways to cope and perform well in the face of others’ resentment.

Crumpling up application“It’s lonely being the bad guy,” says Jennifer Lee Magas, who had to fire or lay off dozens of employees in a previous job as an employment attorney and human-resources specialist. One angry co-worker threw a tissue box at her. Others nicknamed her “The Terminator,” says Ms. Magas, vice president of Magas Media Consultants, Monroe, Conn. She eased the stress by running in her off hours and raising money for low-income families.

While some people are too insensitive or narcissistic to mind the role, being the bad guy is harder for those with healthy amounts of empathy. Mike Ellis helped open and hire employees for a window-manufacturing plant years ago and became general manager. Employees hoped the plant would expand tenfold, telling each other, “It’s going to be great,” says Mr. Ellis, managing director of Global Talent Resources Inc., a Westfield, Ind., recruiting firm. Co-workers played together in a softball league.

He became the bad guy a few years later when he had to carry out the parent company’s decision to shut down the plant. “I had to deliver all the bad news, and hear people ask, ‘How come, why haven’t you done this, why can’t you fix that?’ ” Feeling responsible, Mr. Ellis turned for support to other, older members of a men’s Bible study group. They helped him see that such ups and downs were normal and beyond his control, and that “you’ll move forward from this,” he says.

The qualities that foster success often aren’t the same ones that make people popular, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of “Leadership BS,” a book on the traits and behaviors that enable leaders to gain power. Many executives are dominant personalities who learn to shrug off others’ disapproval, says Dr. Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. One CEO who spoke to Dr. Pfeffer’s class described the pain his job cuts caused employees and warned students, “If you want to be liked, get a dog.”

Some executives embrace the bad-guy role as a tool for getting things done. Jonathan Bulkeley, a technology and online-advertising executive and investor, has fired eight company founders or chief executives while leading turnaround efforts or salvaging failing companies.

“I’ve played the bad guy many, many times,” says Mr. Bulkeley, chief executive officer of RealMatch Inc., New York, a performance-based recruitment advertising firm, and former CEO of BarnesandNoble.com.

Mr. Bulkeley admits he gets a little nervous when he has to deliver the news to a founder or CEO. “People freak, they stop talking to you, they storm out of the building. It’s not pretty,” he says. He makes sure the managers know long in advance that they’re not measuring up, makes his reasons clear and frames his message by telling the manager the job isn’t a good fit, he says.

He sees himself as freeing them from an unworkable situation. “It’s not about being loved or liked. It’s about being honest,” Mr. Bulkeley says. “If you’re honest and open, people may not like what you say, they may not like what you do, but they’re not going to question your integrity.”

Many offices need people who are comfortable delivering bad news and making unpopular decisions. Managers who don’t want to alienate their colleagues often bring in a consultant when an employee has to be fired or disciplined for poor performance, says David Lewis, president of OperationsInc., a Norwalk, Conn., human-resources consulting firm. Bad guys are needed even at office parties, where someone has to be “the killjoy, keeping an eye on people’s alcohol consumption and making sure it doesn’t get out of control,” Mr. Lewis says.

Sarah Hiner needs her employees to learn new skills as her company, Boardroom Inc., expands from print products into new digital publishing and marketing channels, says Ms. Hiner, president of the Stamford, Conn., publisher of BottomLine/Personal information products. Her chief operating officer, Joseph Seibert, a technology and change-management executive and consultant, is driving that “cultural shift,” she says.

Mr. Seibert, a former chief information officer at Viacom who has helped many companies cut costs and update their strategies, is used to pushing people to keep up. “My career has been as ‘the bad guy,’” he says. “If a person will not change, you can warn them, you can give them a written document, you can explain to them exactly what needs to be changed. If they won’t change, as the bad guy I will recommend they be let go,” he says. He puts the same demands on himself, taking new-skills training several times a year.

He’s respectful and friendly to employees but avoids socializing with colleagues. When he made friends at the office early in his career, says Mr. Seibert, 56, he found that “all of a sudden you have to lay off a friend, and you’re tempted to make different decisions because you have friends.”

To cope with stress, Mr. Seibert exercises, eats a rigorously healthy diet, meditates and enjoys hobbies with friends, including photography and auto drag-racing. He gets his rewards from seeing companies turn around and start making more money and creating jobs, he says.

Others do charity work. Roni Chambers had to lay off hundreds of people years ago as a human-resources manager during a corporate takeover. Colleagues who heard her footsteps approaching ducked into their offices, and a magazine portrayed her as a dark female figure in silhouette, carrying an ax.

She was later laid off herself, and began volunteering as head of a community organization that helped unemployed people find jobs, says Ms. Chambers, founder of Career Innovation Partners, a St. Louis career-transition coaching firm. She took satisfaction in helping many of her former co-workers and others find new careers.

A few people manage to turn being the bad guy into an advantage. Professional athletes often face hostile crowds. Rather than allowing the boos and jeers to erode their confidence, many “use adversity to help them go deeper into their zone, focusing on what they have to do to compete,” says Patrick Cohn, an Orlando, Fla., expert on sports psychology who coaches athletes in tennis, baseball and other sports. “They turn it around and make it work for them, giving them added intensity and adrenaline.”