Batuhan: Management is NOT a popularity contest

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By Allan S. B. Batuhan

Foreign Exchange

Friday, April 4, 2014

THE title of today’s piece was one of the more memorable lessons I picked up, as a young investment banker, from my boss’ boss. He was a stern and strict manager, always demanding the best from his people. He used to tell us that to be effective, you have to be ruthless and give no quarters. In other words, you cannot be a good manager and also be Mr. Nice Guy.

Popular management literature supports this, as the section below suggests (US News & World Report, July 7, 2008).

“Can a manager be both effective and well liked? Nope. Not going to happen. If you’re a good manager, you’re going to make decisions that anger and upset some people. You are going to tell some people their work isn’t good enough. You are going to hold accountable people who don’t want to be held accountable. You are going to institute and enforce policies that may exist for a good reason but still irritate the heck out of some people. You are going to fire people.


If you never do any of those things, the probability is high that you are not an effective manager (or that you have only managed a handful of people, all of whom were really good). Generally, the reality is that at times you’ll be managing people who aren’t performing up to the bar you’ve set.

And, in order to be effective, you’re going to need to address it head-on. Some of those people are going to resent it—and, thusly, you—because many people find it far easier to blame the messenger than to listen to the message.”

Reading through the above piece, it did seem to reinforce what my former boss always said.

Change management is always an unsettling process, and something that takes people out of their comfort zones. Any manager who is “blessed” enough in his lifetime to carry out any number of these will inevitably find out that hard choices have to be made, and that invariably, these will upset people, and cause one to be less liked.

Fast-forward from the young investment banker, to a now well-seasoned and mature senior executive. Do I still think the same thing?

In my most recent affiliation, some head office “thinkers” decided to embark on a rather wide-ranging set of changes that would affect our organization. Not that we needed them, because we were delivering our value proposition very well, without anyone’s intervention, for the better part of 10 years. But being the “owners” of the business, they deemed it their prerogative to change whatever they felt like changing.

So what happened? The moves were largely unpopular, and now hordes of people are voting with their feet. And contrary to what my boss always told me, it was not only the chaff that were leaving, but the finest wheat along with them. Something about the “not a popularity contest” thing did not seem to make so much sense anymore.

Reading through the end of the US News piece seemed to be the missing piece to the whole management principle.

“Of course, the fact that you can’t be liked by everyone isn’t license to be a jerk.

Part of being an effective manager is retaining good people, after all, and good people don’t want to work for jerks. But you do need to make peace with the fact that there will forever be people complaining about that horrible person they worked for, and that horrible person will be you.”

Which is the problem with most managers exactly. Raving popularity and damning unpopularity need not necessarily be polar opposites only, but a continuum. And while one does not have to sacrifice effectiveness for acceptance, there is also a way by which one can bring about change, without being total jerks.

And that is by treating people like people, informing them clearly and transparently about what is happening and going to happen with the change; rather than keeping them under the shade at all times—to constantly worry and fret about what might happen to them—when the changes do take place.

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Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on April 05, 2014.


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