It would almost be too cliche if it wasn’t actually rampant in the real business world. What am I talking about? What I’m talking about are all those bosses on television and in the movies who yell at and berate their employees in an attempt to motivate them into getting the productivity or results those bosses want out of them. Unfortunately in those movies and TV programs, most every time those employees scurry off hurriedly into action, acting like their boss’s anger and extra loudness did the trick.
It would be great if that only happened in the make believe world of movies and television. But it doesn’t just happen in make believe. It happens a lot in real life too. Every day tens of thousands of bosses across the country and across the globe yell at and criticize their employees in an attempt to motivate them to work better, work faster, work smarter. But what these bosses don’t know, is that they are actually moving their employees in the wrong direction, making them less motivated, decreasing their ability to work better, faster, and smarter, and for some very iron-clad scientific reasons.
There are two types of bosses who yell and criticize. First is the boss who can’t help it. They get angry at whatever-it-is and the only way they know to express and process that anger is through raising their voice and lashing out at the people they feel are responsible for that anger. I explain this process in an upcoming book titled Mind Hacking Happiness, but basically it’s just raw unregulated emotion, which is then allowed to evoke the animalistic response of lashing out in a weird kind of self defense reaction (even though it is seen as offensive most the time).
The other type of boss is the calculated yeller. I used to be a calculated yeller. Calculated yellers and criticizers have what they think are intelligent rational reasons to yell and criticize their employees. They think, “the entire basis of human motivation is to move out of pain and into pleasure, so if I apply just the right amount of pain, my employees will be motivated to do better and work harder”. They think (or at least I did) if an employee is made to feel uncomfortable with their present situation of the boss being unsatisfied with their work results, that will in turn motivate them to move into a more pleasurable position of getting the boss the results that will make that boss happy. After all, if that employee is delivering, then the boss won’t yell and criticize them anymore, right? So the boss thinks either consciously or unconsciously, “if I yell at this person here, that will evoke the reactionary response I want out of them. They will want to do better as a result of my yelling and criticizing them. Who wants to have flaws? If I bring all this out in front of them (and potentially others which is a horrible play), they will want to work harder so I don’t have to yell and criticize next time.” I actually used to think like this (without the doing it in front of others part – that’s just bad form all around). And I used to employ this thinking (and yelling activity) when I ran small divisions of large global corporations, and also in my early career as an entrepreneur. Yes, I too was a yelling executive idiot.
But then I learned about the brain, and how the brain works to create emotion, motivation, and especially how it responds to emotional and psychological stress. I learned that employees can actually lose between 10-20 IQ points right off the top of their intelligence when experiencing stress (without them even realizing it), and that this effect can last for days, weeks, months… basically as long as they feel stressed out because I was yelling and putting additional work pressure on them. And so it was after I learned how the brains of my employees worked that I then changed my ways. Let’s look at a couple facts about the neuroscience to see exactly what I’m talking about.
The brain is our organ of survival. It serves as a self preservation/perpetuation engine to basically help us live into tomorrow every day for as many days as possible. It helps us remember where the food and water is (memory), figure out how to build shelter and cook the food (cognition), present us with subconscious self preservation messages (emotion), and figure out what to say to get that attractive mate to hop into bed (perpetuation of the species – ooh yeah). And even as little as 100 years ago when most of us still lived on the farm, our brains were wired really well for survival, especially in regard to output of emotion. Emotions are the subconscious programs within us designed to nudge us in the right direction regarding what is happening in the world around us. For instance, we don’t control fear when it arises within us, it just pops up. 100 years ago it made sense that when we encountered a snake or other potential threat, that our blood stream was flooded with adrenaline and other stress hormones, and that our digestion and higher cognitive functions were shut off in favor of using that energy to freeze, fight, or flee. (Because this is exactly what happens in our brain when we experience negative emotions – noncritical things like thinking get shut down, and more primitive systems like our muscles get the juice.) After all, who needs to think well to run? Keeping higher cognition operating would be a waste when the muscles could use that extra energy.
The issue here however is that our lives have dramatically changed over the last few hundred years, but our brains haven’t. Now we have cell phones. And careers. And politics. And religious concerns. And other silly things like our favorite contestants getting kicked off The Voice. (We make a lot of things more important than they should be.) Now we have family members being pulled away from home off to the four corners of the world. We have communications technologies that create rifts within interpersonal relationships as numerous influences play on our thoughts differently, creating psychological distance and disagreements between people, and also simultaneously making it easier to argue about these issues all day every day in many circumstances.
All these new influences create more opportunities to experience negative emotions for us. And because our physiology hasn’t changed one bit since all these technologies and new worries have emerged, our negative emotions still go about shutting down higher cognitive functions and dumping stress hormone into our bodies when we experience them. This includes when the boss is in our face raising their voice criticizing our work efforts. When our boss start yelling, our bodies react just like they would if we were at that moment encountering a deadly snake.
When a boss decides (or doesn’t decide but does it anyway) to yell, what they are doing is inserting stress into the brain of their employee(s). Stress creates stress hormones, which then shuts down higher cognitive function as a result. So as the boss stands there yelling, their employee gets dumber by the second whether they like it or not. 10-20 IQ points dumber. In addition, immune system function diminishes, making it more likely to miss work. It also doesn’t exactly endear the employee to their boss, which can reduce motivation and engagement. All this piles up to affect the employees (and indeed the whole culture of the department and/or company) in some very specific ways, none of them being positive.
In addition, when we were all still living out on the farm, it was easy to burn off and metabolize stress hormone by running away from whatever danger caused it in the first place. We worked it off much more easily. And those types of dangers weren’t long term dangers either. Once we got a bit of distance between us and the identified threat, the stressful situation was over. The body could return to equilibrium. But today, when the boss yells at us and threatens the future of our job, now we simply have to go back to our desk and sit. And while our bodies try to metabolize the stress hormones built up in our system, that happens a much slower rate than if we were up and using our muscles, running away from a threat. (Maybe if we all vowed to beat the shit out of our boss when they yelled at us we could solve both problems simultaneously – working our muscles while teaching them not to yell – I’m kidding – don’t do that.) What’s even worse in this situation is that after we get back to our desk, the stressful situation follows us there, not letting us return to equilibrium. This continues to dump stress hormone into our system, creating negative health results not to mention continuously suppresses intelligence. Are stressful situations at work a reality? Yes. But do bosses need to add to that effect by turning up the heat even more? No. Nor should they want to. Why?
Here is the hard science behind what yelling at employees does to those employees:
Lower Working Memory and Effective IQ
As stated above, negative emotions which create stress response in the body lower effective IQ and have negative affects on working memory. “Stress response shuts down our upstairs brain,” reports Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and Professor of psychiatry at UCLA Medical Center, and Founder of the Mindsight Institute. “We can’t think as well when we are experiencing stress.” Dr. Daniel Goleman calls it amygdala hijack. He authored the book Emotional Intelligence, Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. “Both of working memory and IQ are required for performing any type of work higher than simple physical labor, and especially in higher paying roles that require critical thinking and creativity,” he said at a recent conference in New York City. From a practical standpoint, typically critical thinking roles are filled by people who get paid more. If a boss has spent more on salary to hire smart people, then takes actions (even inadvertently) to diminish those smarts, that’s just wasting company money and company productivity, and negatively affecting the company’s bottom line. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Negative Engagement Shift
Good business is all about good employee engagement. That’s just science, if not also just common sense. Chade Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, a program that was spun out of Google’s wildly successful internal employee engagement program at Google, teaches that employee engagement is the key to successful companies being successful. “Employee engagement increases employee buy-in, and employee happiness,” says Meng. “Happy employees are more creative, more productive, and better serve the company’s business goals.” “Engagement is what getting good employees is all about these days,” adds Nicole Miller, with international staffing firm Randstad. “Science shows that engagement raises productivity, increases job satisfaction, reduces interpersonal conflicts, reduces turnover intention… all things that employers love and that ultimately positively affect the bottom line.” So from a scientific perspective, bosses who inject stress into the equation by yelling and criticizing employees destructively work against promoting engagement, and thus work against the bottom line.
Negative Motivation Shifts
Employees who like their boss and who identify with their job (for example, that they enjoy their time working, and/or that it provides a feeling of fulfillment) are better employees, and are more motivated to do a better job. But employees who do not like their boss, and who only identify their job as a requirement to receive a paycheck do not have as much internal motivation to do well, and as a result, they don’t. Bosses who alienate employees by yelling at them and criticizing them on a personal level or in front of others undermines morale, and as a result their motivation to perform well at work.
So… all that said, haven’t we all heard good effective executives just yell? Aren’t they just volatile as a species? We’ve all heard the stories about Steve Jobs firing people in the elevator, and about the huge blow-ups between Bill Gates and other execs at Microsoft. Donald Trump, who may or may not be a ridiculous political candidate is certainly a very shrewd and effective executive… he pretty much speaks in a yell all day every day, doesn’t he? The simple fact is that some executives might succeed despite themselves and the culture they actively create because of other environmental variables that make it easier to succeed. Jobs had amazing vision into form and function and manufactured amazing products that simply worked as expected. Gates took the personal and business computing world into a choke hold by becoming the only real business operating system for years in the largest growth industry in history. Trump inherited a lot of money which he then used to create an amazing real estate business. So maybe they succeeded despite the urge to yell at folks.
On the other side of the fence there are examples of questionable business models that succeeded because of low stress environments and cultures of creating happiness both within and without the company. If you like how well Amazon customer service works (they are now famous for it), you can thank Tony Hsieh at Zappos for that. He took the business of selling shoes online and turned it into a monster success. How? Certainly not by selling at a cheaper price point. If you were a Zappos customer before Amazon bought them, you paid more than you would at your local shoe store down the street. Their shoes were more expensive because of the costs of shipping and returns and logistics, etc. But Tony wasn’t just selling shoes. Tony was actually selling happiness. When you bought at Zappos your shoes would arrive at your door quickly, and if you didn’t like them you could return them at no cost, no questions asked. Their customer service was a pleasure to do business with. The customers loved the experience. Their employees were happy, which made it easy to be nice to the customers, making the customers happy. After purchasing Zappos, Jeff Bezos adopted the whole Zappos philosophy into their customer service mechanism and thereby arguably saved Amazon from outright failure. At the time Amazon was struggling with customer service issues which were threatening to ruin Amazon’s brand reputation. What is Amazon known for now? Great prices and amazing customer service which stands behind the customer, even if it costs them money. Their employees are happy. I haven’t heard any stories of Jeff Bezos yelling at his employees recently, have you? Nor did Tony Hsieh. (Not in anger anyway.)
So yeah, if you know of a boss who yells at their employees, they’re being ignorant of the science, and they need to learn a thing or two to grow into being truly effective executive leaders. Yelling and criticizing negatively are not required to get people well motivated, and it actually pushes people in the opposite direction from that boss’s intended direction for the company, department, team, or whatever it is they are overseeing. Maybe send them the link to this article anonymously? Maybe that will help. I hope so.
Visit MindHackingHappiness.com for tips and tricks on how to reduce stress, increase happiness, and get more out of both your work and personal life through the practical application of the latest brain science. I hope this finds you well. Have a great remainder of your day!