Steve Jobs. Jeff Bezos. Martha Stewart. Bill Gates. Larry Ellison. Jack Welch. Successful. Visionary. Competitive. Demanding. And each with a well-deserved reputation for raising their voices. They yelled. Yelling was an integral part of their leadership and management styles.
Is that bad? Is that a flaw?
Harvard Business School recently published and popularized a case study of Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s recently retired manager and the most successful coach in English Premier League history. Ferguson was a fantastic leader and motivator. But Sir Alex was particularly famous for his “hair dryer treatment”: When he was angry with his players, he shouted at them with such force and intensity it was like having a hair dryer switched on in their faces.
Does that make Sir Alex’s leadership less worthy of study and emulation?
Of course, that’s sports. Elite coaches worldwide are notorious for yelling at their talented athletes. Vince Lombardi, Mike Ditka, Bela Karolyi, Pat Summitt, and Jose Mourinho were comparably effective at raising their voices to command attention and results. They inspired great performances and even greater loyalty.
High-decibel intensity is similarly found in special forces training and commands in the military. Yelling is intrinsic to elite military unit culture. It’s expected, not rejected. But perhaps the inherent physicality and emotional stresses of those fields make yelling more acceptable than in more creative and aesthetic endeavors.
But wait: Even the seemingly genteel world of classical music evokes clashes other than cymbals. The world’s best and most highly regarded conductors are frequently famous for raising their voices even higher than their batons. Arturo Toscanini, Herbert von Karajan, and even Daniel Barenboim had reputations for making sure their sharper words were heard above the flatter music. For world-class symphony orchestras, world-class conductors’ critiques are seldom sotto voce.
There’s surely never been a shortage of movie and theater directors who emphatically raise their voices to raise the level of performance of their actors and crew. Neither Stanley Kubrick nor Howard Hawks, for example, were mutes.
What’s true for the collaborative arts holds true for the collaborative sciences, as well. Nobelist Ernest Rutherford was a force of nature who rarely hesitated to firmly and loudly make his questions and concerns known during his astonishingly successful tenure running Cambridge’s Cavendish Lab. His Cavendish was arguably the most important experimental physics lab in the world.
To be sure, yelling doesn’t make someone a better leader or manager. But the notion that raising one’s voice represents managerial weakness or a failure of leadership seems to be prima facie nonsense. The empirical fact pattern suggests that in a variety of creative and intensely competitive talent-rich disciplines around the world, the most successful leaders actually have yelling as both a core competence and brand attribute. These leaders apparently benefit from the acoustic intensity of their authenticity and the authenticity of their intensity.
But is that a good thing? Or a necessary evil?
Stanford Professor Bob Sutton, who authored the managerial cult classic The No Asshole Rule is not quick to condemn leaders and managers who raise their voices with intent.
“To me it is all about context and culture,” he told me via email, “and the history of the relationship. So in some settings, yelling is accepted and is not viewed as a personal insult, but an expected part of leadership. The National Football League is an example… I once tried to teach the ‘no asshole rule’ to a group of folks from NFL teams, and in that context, many of the behaviors that might be shocking in a school, company, or hospital were normal. Much of it comes down to intent and impact, so does it leave the person feeling demeaned and de-energized? Or is it taken as acceptable and expected, and even as a sign of caring?”
Exactly. Would you pay more — and better — attention if you were being yelled at by someone who cares as much about the quality of your work as you do? Or would you find it demotivating? Conversely, if — or when — you raise your voice to a colleague, a boss, or a subordinate, do they hear someone whose passion matters more than their volume?
When I look at the organizations that seem to have the greatest energy and drive, the conversations aren’t whispered and the disagreements aren’t polite. Raised voices mean raised expectations. The volumes reflect intensity, not intimidation.
In other words, yelling isn’t necessarily a bug; it can be a feature — a poignant one.
Sutton concluded his email as follows: “Remember the late and great J. Richard Hackman from Harvard? He yelled at me now and then — I mean yelled, swearing, calling me an idiot — when I was about to make some bad career choices. I appreciated it at the time and have loved him more for it over the years. I knew he was doing because he cared and wanted to make sure I got the message. I wish he were here to yell at me right now.”
If you’re yelling because humiliating and demeaning people is part of who you are, you’ve got bigger professional issues than your decibel level. Your organization needs a quiet conversation about whether your people should work a little louder. But if raising your voice because you care is part of who you are as a person and communicator, your employees should have the courtesy and professionalism to respect that.
Is It OK to Yell at Your Employees? | Michael Schrage | Harvard Business Review