The death of the bollocking

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Time was when anyone who slacked off, back-pedalled, loafed around or otherwise failed to add value at work knew they were in for a good old-fashioned telling-off from the boss. It cleared the air and allowed everyone to get on with the task in hand. Nowadays, though, bureaucracy and the tyranny of balanced feedback rule. Rhymer Rigby reports.

by Rhymer Rigby
Last Updated: 01 Nov 2019

A friend who manages a medium-sized team recently told me about dealing with an underperforming underling. "I took her in and sat her down and told her that her performance wasn't what I expected from someone at her level." This, he added, was on the back of several less formal warnings that the quality of the work wasn't up to scratch.

What happened next? I asked. "Well," he sighed, "she didn't react well. She wouldn't look at me. Then she denied it. She started talking about how much work she had and how much pressure she was under - which is odd, because the rest of the team do more in less time." When this was pointed out to her, she told him he was always picking on her and burst into tears. "It was terrible - like dealing with a spoilt child."

Sadly, this manager's experience is not untypical. You take someone into your office to tell them that their work doesn't pass muster and instead of saying, "You're right, I've been slacking off and I need to improve", they react as though you've assassinated their character.

If you then dare to offer cast-iron evidence of their low productivity, they'll act like you've backed them into a corner and may even play the sexism/racism/bullying card; before you know it, you could find yourself in an expensive and long-drawn-out tribunal case. And all you're doing is trying to tell someone that they're not doing the job they're paid to do as well as they should. My friend concluded: "Honestly, it was like nobody had ever told her off before."

Well, perhaps they hadn't. A good old-fashioned telling-off used to be an accepted part of working life. Staff would be called in to see the boss and colleagues would snicker about the need to slip a magazine down the back of their trousers. The recipient of the impending dressing-down would nervously take a seat and the boss would castigate them about their timekeeping/the slipshod quality of their work/their unprofessional appearance - or whatever. The employee would take it on the chin, mumble an apology, promise to do better and then get on with it.

Andy Hopkinson, head of international business development at advertising services company Adstream, recalls just such a memorable carpeting from a former boss. "I worked for Michael Baulk, then CEO of Abbot Mead Vickers BBDO, and I remember the one real bollocking he gave me. It was completely justified and done fantastically well. I'd been asked to organise the Christmas party and told quite a few times not to let a particular something happen. I let it happen. I was called to the agency at 8am the morning after with a terrible hangover and I was sorted out. Within 30 seconds I knew exactly what I'd done wrong, although, sadly, the meeting lasted rather longer. It was 17 years ago, but I still remember it in flashbulbs."

His advice to managers wishing to dish out a similar drubbing, contemplating a little tough love of their own? Not to do it when you are angry, but to wait for the feeling to pass. "If you're going to bollock someone, you need to hit the nail on the head. Baulk was painfully good - he made it incredibly clear what the problem was."

People may not have enjoyed getting a bollocking (even if some less-than-desirable bosses may have enjoyed dishing them out), but it was a ritual that both parties understood and took in the appropriate spirit. It cleared the air, lanced any festering ill-feeling that had been building among other staff (nothing poisons esprit de corps like an idle team-mate) and served as a warning of what would come to anyone else tempted to shirk their responsibilities.

Not any more. The great British bollocking has gone the way of smoking in the office and the two-bottle lunch. Unlike those changes, however, the death of the bollocking is not a good thing.

"You need to tell people where they stand," says Deborah Meaden, entrepreneur and Dragons' Den dragon. "If someone's done a good job, you should tell them they've done damn well. But if they haven't, you should take the same attitude. Tell them: 'That wasn't good enough.' It creates an environment where everyone understands where they are." One of the dangers of not pulling people up when they underperform, she adds, is that they're genuinely surprised when things don't turn out well for them, or the project they're working on isn't a success.

But it's not just bosses who believe that being told off from time to time is a good thing. Claire Young, of BBC's Apprentice fame, was this year's runner-up, but possibly the most noteworthy candidate, not least because she appeared in the boardroom so often and felt the sharp end of Sir Alan Sugar's tongue more than any other candidate. "When I first went into the boardroom," she says, "no-one had ever bollocked me in that manner before. In school, people give you feedback. In the office, everyone's very PC and worries about upsetting you. But when someone's straight down the line with you like that, it actually does you a world of good. People should be more upfront about things. You don't want to come out of a meeting and have no idea what it was about."

So if bosses want to tell people off and subordinates want to know where they're going wrong, what's the problem? Why don't people say what they mean? Why don't people get hauled over the coals occasionally? Is the problem managers who can't tell people off - or their subordinates reacting badly whenever anyone dares criticise them? Is it part of a societal cultural malaise? Are managers scared of legal problems?

It's a mixture of all of these, but let's deal with the managers first. After all, they're being paid to manage and that isn't just about patting people on the head when they exceed their targets by 200 per cent.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational studies at Lancaster University, says the managerial problem is twofold. First, there are legal issues. "We do have a lot of HR laws in this country and if I tell you you're crap, I'm going to be kind of worried about the implications." This kind of thing is seen at its worst in the public sector, where there is the well-known phenomenon of 'vexatious litigators' - people who claim some kind of 'ism' every time their managers do something they don't like and who have become virtually impossible to sack. And, even in the private sector, some feel that once HR gets involved, it can add needless layers of bureaucracy to the simplest dressing-down. One manager notes: "Our HR department is like having a little bit of my local authority at work."

But infuriating though this is, mindless bureaucracy was certainly around in the 1970s and '80s, when the bollocking was alive and well.

Cooper suspects that the second part of the problem is timidity on the part of the corporate hierarchy. "Managers don't like telling people that they've done a bad job, and don't like doing it face-to-face. But a lot of it is that we simply don't know how to manage underperformance - we don't like the idea of sitting there and telling someone they're incompetent."

Some of this is a British thing, adds Cooper. "If you look at Americans, they're much better at the eyeball-to-eyeball stuff - they do it directly." Most UK managers are technically very good. "But where they're let down is with their interpersonal and social skills."

One area where the bollocking still seems to be alive and well in Blighty is in the restaurant trade - where would Gordon Ramsay's TV shows be without his famously vocal dressings-down? And while we hesitate to recommend such foulmouthed tactics outright, it's clear that for some people, some of the time, they work. As Ramsay has said of his own training: "Bollocking worked with me. When I was training in Harvey's or Le Gavroche, a bollocking made me try harder. And when the chef shouted at me, I listened, took it in and said, 'Oui, chef'."

Marco Pierre White was one of those chefs. White's autobiography contains a photo of a young Ramsay reduced to tears by his verbal tirade. "The thing is, a bollocking isn't personal," he has said of his forceful style. "It's an extremely loud wake-up call; it's 'smell the bloody espresso'. In the heat of service I didn't have time to say: 'Gordon, when do you think you might finish the guinea fowl, old boy?' I have to deliver the message, and the message is: 'Do it now and do it right'."

Of course, most of us are not happy at the thought of giving - or receiving - such brutal feedback. Different people need their pill of truth sugaring to a greater or lesser extent. But beware the beguiling concept of balanced feedback, where every negative is countered with a positive. This sort of spurious balance isn't a good thing when what you want to deliver is unambiguously bad news.

Let's say that you call James in and what you want to tell him is that his work on project X has been very poor. Instead, you sit him down and say: "James, we were really pleased with the way you dealt with presentation Y, but project X wasn't so good." As a result, James takes away a mixed and confused message. Has he been good or bad? He doesn't really know. "I don't like the ploy of "this was good but that wasn't" to soften the blow," says Meaden. 'It's actually dangerous and results in confusion."

What about the staff, then? Is part of the fault theirs? Yes. But it's also (as the cliche goes) society's fault. Those entering the workforce now are the end result of an 'all must have prizes' education system, a generation that has been taught that they never fail at anything they do. The most visible sign of this has been the well-documented rise in A-level pass rates - to the point where some schools now achieve 100 per cent.

But what is the point of an exam system if it doesn't differentiate between people, even if that means failing some of them? The rector of Imperial College at the University of London has said that grade inflation rendered these once formidable exams virtually worthless. "We cannot use A-levels any more as a discriminatory factor,' he explained. '[All our applicants] have all got four or five A-grade A-levels."

Equally well documented has been a decline in competitive sport - another arena in which the bollocking retains its place. Where would football or rugby be without the half-time hairdryer moments of Alex Ferguson or Martin Johnson? This lack of opportunity to compete, says Meaden, deprives many youngsters of a valuable lesson. "At sport you win or you lose, and at school, winning and losing are so important. People have to understand that they're not good at everything."

But everyone is good at something. "It's finding out what it is. Sports people can win; academics can win; artists can win," she adds.

Something similar is afoot across the pond. Charles Sykes, the US commentator, author of Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American children feel good about themselves but can't read, write, or add, has written extensively about how the curriculum has been flattened so that "everyone can pass and no-one can excel". And the reason for this? Well, it's for the same reason that the managers don't bollock their underlings: they don't want to hurt their feelings. "Self-esteem," he says, "has virtually become an official ideology."

A system that serves mainly to stroke the ego doesn't prepare kids for the real world, notes Sykes. "If you've gotten gold stars and happy faces your whole life, the workplace is going to be a shock: an entitled, spoiled generation of kids who feel very good about themselves meets a job where something is actually expected of them."

A blackly comic side effect of this in the US has been the rise of so-called 'helicopter parents', who continue to fight their offspring's battles for them - right through university and out into the workplace. The irate mommy calling up to say that junior's pay rise is unfair isn't a joke.

So, between those who can't criticise and those who don't want to be criticised, what can be done? Camelot CEO Dianne Thompson sees honest, frequent feedback as the key. "Three or four years ago, one thing that came back very strongly was that staff didn't feel there was enough differentiation between high and low performers, and I think that was fair." Camelot set quarterly goals, which are discussed three times a year, the fourth being the appraisal. "By having lots of opportunities to talk about performance, you don't have to have a big row when it's too late."

Ultimately though, managers need to manage, even if this means that their staff won't always want to be their friends. Staff need to listen to criticism, accept when they've made mistakes, learn from them and realise that feedback isn't always a warm cuddle - because if people aren't told where they are going wrong, they'll never be any better.

Perhaps the biggest myth about telling people off is that it always has to be a huge, fiery confrontation - stoked, no doubt, by the Alan Sugars and Gordon Ramsays of this world. If managers store up resentment for years, all the while telling staff they're doing a great job, it will be cataclysmic. But, if managers are honest with people and communicate with them frequently, the odd well-meant home truth will be no big deal.

Nor should constructive but forcefully delivered criticism be confused with abusive behaviour. If your honest intention is to deliver a one-off shock to spur somebody on, you are not a bully. But be careful about telling someone off more than once - if it doesn't work the first time, repetition is unlikely to help, and you may lay yourself open to accusations of bullying. In fact, a mark of good management is to get to the stage where you hardly ever have to reprimand staff - not because you're reluctant to but because you don't need to.

But if you want a workplace where you don't have to tick people off in the future, you may need to start bollocking them now.

This article was originally published in September 2008


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