The thing about organizations in the big leagues: They sometimes make you feel like crap, even if you're a pro.
Good companies are not wrong to be tough on employees. If you wade through the recent research performance, you find stark evidence that difficult environments often bring out the best in people.
Carola M. Barth and Joachim Funke of the University of Heidelberg in Germany found that people perform better at complex problem solving in what the researchers call "nasty" workplaces — environments that abound with negative feedback.
Research subjects in a "nice" work environment with lots of positive feedback are generally in better moods than their nasty-workplace counterparts, but they devote less time to complex tasks and get worse results.
I take no pleasure in reporting this. I did not like the sometimes nasty environments that I labored in as a reporter. I like positive feedback, and I pride myself on giving positive feedback.
I recently told a valet parker that he had done a "great job" of delivering my car to me. I'm sure he was glowing afterward.
And I'm a hearty fan of Bob Sutton, who has waged a one-man crusade against abusive bosses and companies, detailing the anxiety and depression they inflict.
But the reality is that it doesn't take an abusive boss to make employees feel anxious and depressed. Sometimes all it takes is a relentless corporate focus on great results.
I wish it weren't so. But wishes shouldn't delude us. While it's fine to provide a few foosball tables and organize a few company outings, it's not fine to pretend that employees come to work in order to have fun and be fulfilled.
That fiction does them a disservice. They're here to do unremitting work, maybe for years on end, and the labor is going to take something out of them. And they may get laid off for their trouble.
Don't feel badly if you find yourself saying, with exasperation, "It can't be this; it has to be this." That's just part of life in the big corporation. And it's a lot more helpful, most of the time, than "Great job."
O’Leary’s success in business and his direct style are two sides of the same coin.
The longer I work with him, the more I'm convinced of the value that persistent, unrelenting candour and transparency can bring to any business or organization.
In an O'Leary culture, everyone helps kill bad ideas. No formal report. No all-hands meeting. You simply let the numbers tell their story, and move on to something that adds more value.
Brutal honesty is a huge competitive asset. The faster you can say “Stop the madness!” the sooner your company can give good ideas, and good people, the time and resources they deserve.
Compare this with what you've seen at companies that discourage criticism and stifle creative dissent. They are slow, bureaucratic and wasteful. They are deeply vulnerable to competitors that are more nimble and more efficient.
Candid feedback – with money and action to back it up – is part of O’Leary's formula for finding and retaining top people. It's very simple: reward your top performers, and let go of people the minute you know they aren't working out.
It sounds harsh, but it will boost your team's morale and productivity immediately. Your employees already know who adds value and who destroys it.
The truth hurts some, but white lies hurt everyone
If you think the truth hurts, consider the cost of the alternative.
Let's say you avoid criticism and pay everyone the same amount.
Your middle people will stagnate because they won't see a link between making more money for you and taking home more for themselves.
And your worst people will stay the same, dragging down company profits and infecting the culture by proving that everyone can get away with anything.
It's hard to be fired, demoted or shot down in your job. But it can also be a turning point, and an opportunity to set off on a different track – one that’s a better fit for your strengths and weaknesses.