Don’t stop moaning, Bill Michael

Written by Jo Owen CMgr CCMI Wednesday 17 February 2021
The boss of KPMG quit after telling his people to ‘stop moaning’. But isn’t allowing your people to moan beneficial?
Woman with her head in her hands looking unhappily at her laptop

Bill Michael quit as KPMG chair last week after telling staff to stop moaning. Let’s hope he is not moaning about having to step down. This sorry episode represents a masterclass in how not to do things.

The first big lesson is never tell people to stop moaning. Never tell people how they should feel. There has been a corporate fashion for telling staff that they must be positive, committed, enthusiastic and happy even if they are doing unfulfilling or thankless jobs on zero hour contracts.

Instead of ordering people to be motivated, you have to create the conditions in which they can discover their intrinsic motivation. The classic four conditions for this are:

  • Supportive relationships, with bosses and peers: If you are a command and control boss who shouts at staff you will gain compliance, not commitment. At least pretend that you care for each team member and their careers. The challenge of the pandemic makes supportive relationships more important than ever.
  • Autonomy: professionals such as consultants at KPMG crave autonomy. Professional pride means that they want to over-achieve. They do not want to be micromanaged and probably think that management adds little value. So manage them less and delegate more: let them over-achieve for you.
  • Mastery: it is hard to be motivated if you are not capable of doing your job. Learning new skills and growing in competence is highly motivating.
  • Purpose: we all perform better when we feel part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to be able to look forwards with hope and back with pride at what we do.

If staff are complaining and the boss wants to know who to blame, they should look in the mirror. Moaning staff implies that one, or possibly all four, of the conditions above are not being met. Stop blaming staff and instead fix the conditions which lead to the moaning.

A really smart boss would recognise that some moaning is good. You do not deal with adversity by denying it. Moaning is the first step towards recognising reality and then dealing with it. It is also a good way for team members to build relationships and trust in the face of adversity which might be the pandemic, or might be the boss. Denying staff the chance to vent their feelings creates a pressure cooker effect where resentment slowly builds up into a toxic and explosive brew.

If the boss has hired a team or, in the case of the Chairman, an entire organisation which moans non-stop, then they have probably hired the wrong team or even the wrong firm. Whose fault is that?

The second big lesson is about authenticity. There are limits to authenticity. Vlad the Impaler was authentic in his wish to see enemies impaled on stakes. Not best-practice leadership in today’s world. Bill Michael was probably being authentic and saying what he thought. But leadership is a performance art. You are always under the spotlight and you have to play your role. As Bill Michael discovered, the spotlight is unforgiving in highlighting mistakes.

As a leader, there are times you have to wear the mask of leadership. You have to act the part. It is not enough to be yourself. You have to be the best of yourself, with skill. You then have to adapt by bringing the best part of yourself to each situation.

Good leadership is a tough act, which is why there are so few good leaders.

 If you’re looking to understand more about authentic and empathetic leadership, find out which leadership style you have – it’s an invaluable way of digging deeper into stellar leadership.

Speaking about Bill Michael's resignation from KPMG, CMI's chief executive Ann Francke told LBC radio: “The reality is that expectations of leaders are shifting and the pandemic has accelerated this. When we survey our managers they tell us that the number-one traits they’re looking for in leaders is empathy, listening, and communication skills. They expect leaders to demonstrate these and to appreciate that everybody is suffering in very many ways in this pandemic – not just with their physical health but with their mental health, with the pressure of balancing work, family, and potentially home-schooling. And leaders that appreciate this actually get paid back with greater productivity from their employees.”

Jo Owen CMgr CCMI  is the author of Resilience and How to Lead.

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