The Boss Show

Workplace wisdom with heart and humor

August 7, 2016

How To Be Tough Without Being a Jerk

A “tough” boss – what does that mean to you? Would you rather have a boss who’s a little too tough or a little too soft? Jim builds a case for being a resolute, fiercely honest, decisive leader who is willing to tolerate disapproval in service of ethics, excellence, the customer, or the best interests of the organization.

View Transcript

Voiceover: It’s a Northwest Lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. Now, a show for anyone who is, or has, a boss. This is The Boss Show, with Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.


Jim Hessler: I am Jim Hessler. I’m widely known throughout the world as the Business Guy. I’m the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development, and the author, along with my co-host, of the book Land on Your Feet, Not on Your Face.


Steve Motenko: I’m Steve Motenko. I’m the Psychology Guy, a little less widely known, a little more humble, and a little more realistic. I’m an executive coach as well as a personal development coach here in the Seattle area. You’re listening to the show for anyone who is or has a boss.


Jim Hessler: That’s right. We try to speak to all of our subjects from both perspectives. We’re going to talk today about how to be tough without being a jerk. That can be tough, but I think we have a lot of movement in our world towards the soft skills, towards the managers being very sensitive guys. You and I both believe in that, and we teach that to our clients. But there is a certain level of toughness that’s called for to be a good manager, and I want to kind of sort through that today and see where toughness has its role and where it becomes jerkiness instead.


Steve Motenko: What I’m really curious about is how you’re going to define toughness.


Jim Hessler: Yeah, I knew you were going to do that.


Steve Motenko: I know you’re going to be really kind of, you’re going to accuse me of being namby pamby about having to define the term.


Jim Hessler: I think I can, well, give me a shot, and maybe after the break I’ll give you my definition. But what got me to thinking about this was an article I saw in the Bloomberg Business Week. It was called “Wanted: Hearts of Stone.” What they did is they got a bunch of accountants, and they measured them on their sensitivity and their congeniality towards others, their empathy towards others. Then they gave them tests on a whole series of scenarios, which would test their willingness to follow the rules, and their business ethics. What they found is the accountants that had the highest levels of personal interaction need, and were more empathetic and more congenial and friendly towards other people, were much more likely to violate ethical rules when it came to their accounting practices. So what they were saying is, at least in accounting, this is a job where we want rule followers, and not people who are going to be swayed by their feelings towards other people to kind of cut people breaks, let them turn in their expense reports after the deadline. When we want to please people, that tests our ethics.


Steve Motenko: Right. Right. Yeah, that makes sense. If your job is, to be successful in your job, it’s really important to follow rules, and you’re more worried about being liked, that’s a problem.


Jim Hessler: Yeah, you’re going to cut some slack for people in certain situations, because in order to be that hearts-of-stone accountant, you might have to make some enemies. You might have to piss some people off. You might have to make some people not like you, because you aren’t going to let them do what they wanted to do.


Steve Motenko: So it’s about prioritizing your values, right?


Jim Hessler: It’s partly that, but it’s also partly just, they found that accountants that weren’t weighed down by this sense of companionship, of worrying about what other people were thinking about them, felt freer to make the right call, the hard-ass call.


Steve Motenko: That’s what I mean about prioritizing your values. If you have a value of being liked, if that is the primary value, then you’re going to not succeed in some pretty important ways.


Jim Hessler: Which led me to ask that same question about management and leadership in general. Because I think that it’s important to be liked. It’s important to be likable. I know we’re going to be talking about that in an upcoming show. I think that it’s great to like your manager, but I think there’s times you’re not going to like your manager, because of choices that manager has to make, and things that your manager has to do, that are going to be uncomfortable for you. And if you’re a manager —


Steve Motenko: Although there are ways that a manager can execute those choices in ways that don’t make them hated.


Jim Hessler: Of course, but even with all of that care taken towards sensitivity towards the people involved, there’s still going to be tough calls you’re going to need to make, and you’re going to be unpopular in some cases for making those calls.


Today as an exploration of how you can be tough, which I think is an important quality in leadership, I think it’s very, very important to be a tough, resolute, determined person, and also hold people accountable, but not to be a jerk at the same time. So we’ll explore that more when we come back from the break.


You’re listening to The Boss Show. Stay tuned.


Voiceover: It’s a Northwest Lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. The Boss Show continues.


Jim Hessler: I’m Jim Hessler. I’m the business guy.


Steve Motenko: And I’m Steve Motenko. I’m the psychology guy. If you’ve got an idea for a Boss Show topic, we really do want to hear from you. Or if you just want to tell us how wonderful we are, or how full of crap we are in our opinions on The Boss Show, we’d still love to hear from you. Our email address is We’ve got a listener comment line. It’s 206-973-7377.


Jim Hessler: Today we’re talking about how to be tough without being a jerk. You asked me for a definition of tough. I think as we go through, I have some descriptions of toughness that I think that, rather than me try to define that now, I think I’ll define it as we go through the rest of our conversation here.


So question for you. Would you rather work for a boss who’s a little too tough, or a little too soft?


Steve Motenko: Oh, man, do I have to answer that question. If it’s a little, I’d probably say a little too tough.


Jim Hessler: I would too. I think most people would agree with that. I think working for a soft boss is painful. It’s hard to … It’s cringe-worthy sometimes to watch a boss who’s struggling with the fundamental decisiveness and toughness that I think is somehow sometimes required.


Steve Motenko: I keep on coming back to this definition in my mind about prioritizing values, because a soft boss is prioritizing, in all probability, being liked above things that just need to be much more important, things that are about success of the team, fulfillment for the customer and so forth.


Jim Hessler: Well, and I’m glad you said that, because I think that also brings up something else for me that describes a tough boss, versus a soft boss. A tough boss doesn’t operate out of fear as much as a soft boss. I think a soft boss is afraid of things going wrong. A tough boss wants to make things happen.


Steve Motenko: Right. If it’s a little too tough, I don’t know why this is coming up in my mind, but it is, it’s workable with. In other words, I can have a conversation with my boss. You’re basically, your relationships are healthy, but I’d like to see you drive things a little less forcefully, be a little bit open to team input, whatever the gap is that you see.


Jim Hessler: At the bottom, we can never forget that everybody wants to be part of a winning team. Everybody wants to be part of a successful organization. If we’re working for a boss who might be tough in ways that make that journey a little bit uncomfortable for us, at least they’re leading us someplace interesting and exciting and engaging, and it may be a little bit of a rougher journey, may be a little bit of a roller coaster ride, but at least we’re going somewhere interesting. Right? Whereas, the soft, passive boss, where the heck are we going?


Which really brings up the first point of being tough, to me, which is to be goal oriented. I think a tough boss is a very goal-oriented person. I think they have a vision. I think they make it about some greater purpose, rather than the individual needs or perspectives of any individual on the team. They create a greater context for people.


Steve Motenko: In that context, what you just said, a boss who’s a little too tough, because of his or her goal orientation, in the best interests of the team, the organization, the customer, the client, whatever, the community, whatever, that’s much more forgivable than the boss who’s a little too soft, because he or she, again, is worried about whether his decisions or her decisions are going to be liked. So it’s more forgivable. A little too tough. A lot too tough, I don’t know. But a little too tough is more forgivable, because of the purpose.


Jim Hessler: Right. If we like where that person’s headed, and that’s compelling for us, then we’re willing to put up with some discomfort on the journey.


Steve Motenko: Right. In some ways we’d rather our boss exercise that discomfort for us than we have to do it ourselves.


Jim Hessler: Well said. Well said.


The second thing is, and it’s related to the first thing, is the boss, the tough boss is not a victim. They don’t give up easily. They’re resilient. They bounce back from failure. They get up and put 1 foot in front of the other tomorrow and the next day and the next day, and they’re not easily knocked off their track.


Steve Motenko: I think that’s kind of the same and different, because it can be that purpose orientation that allows that to happen, as opposed to feeling hypersensitive about when something goes wrong, which the soft boss might be more oriented toward.


Jim Hessler: So you can be a super nice person and be very goal oriented and be very resilient, and that’s your toughness showing up. Right? This is somebody you want to get behind. Again, I’ll restate that. It’s somebody who’s going somewhere, someplace interesting, someplace compelling. They have a vision. They make it interesting, and challenging for you. Right? We always talk about support and challenge, and this is that challenging element.


When we come back from the break we’re going to talk about some more of these elements of being a tough boss who’s not a jerk. You’re listening to The Boss Show.


Voiceover: Now back to Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko. This is The Boss Show, on KOMO News.


Steve Motenko: Welcome back to The Boss Show. I’m Steve Motenko. I’m the psychology guy.


Jim Hessler: I’m Jim Hessler. I’m the business guy. Today we’re talking about being tough without being a jerk.


Steve Motenko: You should take a dose of your own medicine there.


Jim Hessler: You think so?


Steve Motenko: Yeah.


Jim Hessler: I can be a little on the tough side, can’t I?


Steve Motenko: You can be a– yeah, yeah.


Jim Hessler: You’ve seen me be a jerk.


Steve Motenko: Well, I mean, jerk is subjective, internal assessment.


Jim Hessler: Come on now. Don’t wimp out on this. You’ve seen me be a jerk. Just say it.


Steve Motenko: No. I refuse. Because we’re constantly, we’re joking, but we’re constantly talking to our clients and workshop participants about labels like jerk. They’re just too easy to throw off. So no, I’m not going to do that. I will say that I have seen you be, I would say too tough sometimes.


Jim Hessler: Less than my best self.


Steve Motenko: Tougher than the situation necessarily calls for. Call it namby pamby. That’s the truth I’m standing in.


Jim Hessler: We’re talking about what makes a boss tough in good ways. Right? I guess that would be another way to talk about this list we’re going through. The first things we talked about were being very goal oriented, making it about a greater purpose, giving it a very large context. We also talked about being resilient and not giving up easily, and not being a victim. I would add to that being consistent and trustworthy. I think that’s an element of toughness. Now I know there’s that great quote that “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I think you can be, I’m not talking about being automaton here, but I’m talking about consistency especially in regard to how you treat other people, so that you treat fairly and consistently, applying the same set of guidelines and values to each of your interactions, not having favorites, things like that. I think it takes a tough mind to be that consistent person.


Steve Motenko: Again because, I’m trying to wrap my mind around what you’re saying, again because it’s too easy to succumb to your desire to be liked, and so treat people differently, because you don’t want to enforce rules that they’re not going to like, that you’ve enforced elsewhere.


Jim Hessler: Well, I think there’s also stability in a group that comes from being able to make a pretty good estimate of how your boss is going to react in a particular situation, and not having them be all over the place and consistent in their behavior. I think there’s a certain amount of mental toughness in maintaining a steady hand. A consistent demeanor, I guess would be another way to say it.


Steve Motenko: Right. If you apply a policy or procedure consistently, and somebody has what they think is a good excuse, there’s a higher purpose, again, a higher value in continuing that consistent application.


Jim Hessler: That’s right. The next thing I’d talk about in terms of toughness is really being clear with people with your expectations, even if those expectations might be challenging to the other individual. To be very, very clear about what your expectations and the team’s expectations should be in terms of that person’s performance. I find this is a big problem. I don’t know what you see out there. But people often don’t perform because they’re simply not clear. Soft bosses often aren’t willing to sit to really look at somebody in the eyes and say, “I need you to perform this way, or do that, or do this thing in a certain way.” So there’s a toughness, I think, that comes from laying out expectations for people.


Steve Motenko: Yeah, but the expectations. I agree with that, and expectations also have to be grounded in reality.


Jim Hessler: Of course.


Steve Motenko: Considering the individual’s potential and skills and development and so fort. It’s also important to really know your folks so that those expectations are not just high expectations, but realistic expectations.


Jim Hessler: Yes. Also their willingness to listen to you if you want to push back on that and say that that’s not reasonable because of some information they might not have. But I think it’s great to work for a boss who knows what they need from you, who believes in your abilities, and is willing to tell you exactly what they need.


So more about being tough without being a jerk when we come back from the break. You’re listening to The Boss Show.


Voiceover: Come on in. The Boss Show is back on a Northwest Lifestyle weekend. Here’s Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.


Jim Hessler: I’m am Jim Hessler and I am the business guy.


Steve Motenko: I’m Steve Motenko. I’m the psychology guy. We’re going to do a show in a few weeks on meditation in the workplace.


Jim Hessler: Really?


Steve Motenko: A really burgeoning phenomenon.


Jim Hessler: Oh, jeez.


Steve Motenko: What? You’ve got a problem with that?


Jim Hessler: We’re not going to teach people how to do it on the air, are we?


Steve Motenko: We’re actually going to, we’re going to have dead air.


Jim Hessler: We’re going to have a session here in the studio.


Steve Motenko: Yes. We’re going to meditate. We’re just going to leave dead air on the radio for 25 minutes. [crosstalk 00:15:05]


Jim Hessler: You’ll just hear little gongs in the background from time to time, people breathing.


Steve Motenko: Right. Keep you awake. No, but seriously, if you have a thought about it, meditation in the workplace, if you have experience with it in your company, if you think it’s just one of those crazy, stupid, new age things that make no sense at all, we want to hear from you. We maybe will air your story, or your perspective. And the way to reach us? is our email address. Listener commend line is 206-973-7377.


Jim Hessler: Today we’re talking about being a tough manager without, hopefully without being a jerk. We’ve talked about some of the things that make a manager tough in ways that I think are good. The next one, to me, would be honest, even if it hurts a little bit.


Steve Motenko: Yep.


Jim Hessler: You know, as a tough manager, you’ve got to tell people the truth about the circumstances they’re in. You’ve got to tell them the truth about whether they’re promotable. You’ve got to tell them the truth about their salary expectations. You’ve got to tell them the truth about their performance. You’ve got to be able to do that. I can’t stress that enough, because I think that’s one of the really consistent failings I see, is we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, so we tap dance around issues.


Steve Motenko: In our leadership workshop, we talk about relationships with backbone and relationships with heart.


Jim Hessler: Exactly. This is the backbone piece.


Steve Motenko: This is the backbone. This is part of the backbone piece is telling people the truth. You mentioned manager, and I know that’s how you’re used to thinking of it. But really, don’t make the excuse that because you’re not a manager you don’t need to tell people the truth. It’s critical, whether it’s in the workplace or in your personal relationships, to be as effective as you can, and to make as deep a connection as possible with other people.


Jim Hessler: I really should be using the term leader rather than manager, because we’ve even talked, especially recently, with clients about having those tough, honest conversations going up the ladder, going up the hierarchy towards your boss. So it applies in that case as well.


Steve Motenko: For those of you who despair about the possibility of telling other people the truth, whether it’s your boss or your direct report or a peer, we also have tools, a tool that I’ve developed called the shock treatment, there are many other really valuable tools as well, to take a conversation that feels like it’s going to be, that you despair about the possibility of going well, to take that conversation in your mind an craft it into something that’s likely to be much more effective, even though there’s an uncomfortable truth to be faced.


Jim Hessler: Absolutely. Be honest, even if it hurts a little bit. The next element, I think, of tough leadership that’s really important is just to be decisive. Make a darn decision. It’s so painful to work for a leader who can’t make a …


Steve Motenko: I’m not sure whether to comment on that or not.


Jim Hessler: I’ll tell you whether you should or not. Go ahead.


Steve Motenko: Be decisive about my … It’s a little too tough for me.


Jim Hessler: It is so painful to work for leaders who can’t make a decision.


Steve Motenko: Again, to me, by and large it goes back to needing to be liked. It could also go back to the personality style of having to have, which it tends to be my personality style, having to be right. Having to get it right, not having to be right.


Jim Hessler: Yeah, that’s well said. Having to have maybe more information than you really need to make your decision. We often say that you really have to make most of your decisions in business leadership with about 80% certainty.


Steve Motenko: Yeah, or even less these days with the pace of change being what it is.


Jim Hessler: If you’re spending a lot of time and effort getting that extra 20% certainty, it takes longer to get the last 20% of certainty than it does to get the initial 80% of certainty.


Steve Motenko: One of the points we make early in our leadership workshop model, called The Leadership Platform, is that you have to be willing to take risks.


Jim Hessler: You absolutely do. That’s part of your toughness. Part of your toughness comes from knowing that you’re going to fail, and knowing that you’re going to be wrong sometimes. You have to be tough about that. It doesn’t mean you like being wrong. It doesn’t mean that you don’t acknowledge when you’re wrong. But it means you know that it’s going to happen, and you’re going to have to bull your way through it and be honest about it.


A couple more items about being that tough manager when we get back. You’re listening to The Boss Show.


Voiceover: It’s a Northwest lifestyle weekend on KOMO news. The Boss Show continues.


Steve Motenko: Thanks for staying with us on The Boss Show. I’m Steve Motenko. I’m the psychology guy.


Jim Hessler: I’m Jim Hessler. I’m the business guy. Today we’re talking about being a tough manager. People like working for tough managers if they’re fair, if they’re good quality people. It’s a better experience to work for a manager who, I think, is a little tougher than we’d like them to be sometimes than it is to work for a manager or leader who’s soft.


Steve Motenko: Especially …


Jim Hessler: Indecisive, and testing the political winds all the time.


Steve Motenko: Especially, and this is a critical point that we haven’t, I don’t think, made specifically. If we perceive that toughness as in the service of a greater purpose.


Jim Hessler: Bingo. Which is where we started with this conversation.


Steve Motenko: As opposed to perceiving that toughness as in the service of the leader’s ego.


Jim Hessler: It’s such an important distinction. I’m really glad you made it. If we feel that the person’s toughness is directed towards our good, our collective good.


Steve Motenko: Or the good of the customer, even if it’s not in our short-term best interest.


Jim Hessler: Or the good of the customer. We’ll respond to their toughness a lot better than when we think they’re just showing up with their own ego needs.


The last item that’s so important to talk about with tough management is being high on accountability, creating a high accountability environment, which we’ve talked about a great deal in our Leadership Development workshop, which is now an 18-month program, by the way. We’re doing really well with it, and you’d find it to be a very compelling and engaging experience to go through our program. But we talk a lot about accountability.


Accountability is partly a creating consequence for nonperformance. We just can’t skate by that. There has to be something that happens in your organization when people don’t perform. In many organizations, nothing happens when people don’t perform. That’s very frustrating for employees when managers aren’t tough enough to take action on nonperformance.


Steve Motenko: But if that takes the form, or if that’s perceived as punishment, then it’s going to be counter-productive in the long term.


Jim Hessler: Yes, especially if that punishment is seen as mean-spirited, or unfair, or public in a way that’s not necessary. But the fact is they’ve found in many surveys, time after time, that when one employee is allowed to under-perform in a workplace, it takes the performance of the entire organization down with them. The manager who’s not tough, doesn’t lean into that situation, doesn’t take accountability themselves for addressing it, or take the action that needs to take to address it, then the whole organization just really struggles.


Steve Motenko: Okay, but so that we’re not giving excuses to jerks for being punitive in their treatment of failure, let’s set some guidelines for consequences for under-performance. What does that mean?


Jim Hessler: Well, it’s moving them to a different job? It’s first of all being honest with them. Right? Making sure that they see the gap between their performance and the expectations that you and the team have for them. It may mean withholding a pay raise of a bonus. It may result in termination. But you have to make sure that each person in the organization gets to work with other good people. If they’re not working with good people, you’re not being tough enough. If you’re not creating a great team, you’re not being tough enough with your organization.


Steve Motenko: Part of the picture is, and I know you won’t disagree with this, but you haven’t said it, is coaching them into higher performance, as opposed to simply punishing them for low performance.


Jim Hessler: If you can, and not doing that endlessly, and uselessly.


Steve Motenko: Yeah, I agree with that.


Jim Hessler: And in an unproductive way. And understanding that the gap between how that person’s performing and how you need them to perform may be bigger than you are willing to acknowledge, and you’re not being tough enough with yourself about that. It’s just tough. I never like to say, be a manager who fires people. But if you’ve never fired anybody in your life, you’re probably not being tough enough as a leader. It’s the reality.


Parting thoughts when we come back. You’re listening to The Boss Show.


Voiceover: Now back to Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko. This is The Boss Show, on KOMO News.


Steve Motenko: This is The Boss Show. Thanks for being with us on it. I’m Steve Motenko. I am the psychology guy.


Jim Hessler: I’m Jim Hessler. I’m the business guy. For our listeners in the Seattle area, I’m inviting you to come to a presentation I’m making on the topic of the art of building influence in the high tech world. That’s on August 11th, and it’s taking place at Expeditors International, one of our esteemed local companies here. It’s open to the public. We’d love you to come. We’ll post some information about it on Facebook. It’s from 6:00 to 8:00 in the evening on Thursday, the 11th of August.


Steve Motenko: It sounds like you were talking about maybe relational skills for high tech people?


Jim Hessler: In the high tech world, I think there’s a particular style and approach to gaining influence that I want to talk about. I think it’s going to be interesting, especially for people in that industry, which there’s so many here locally.


Steve Motenko: The Boss Show is produced by Boss Media Productions. Our sound engineer today is Kevin Dodrill.


Jim Hessler: If you missed any of the show, you can get it in its entirety online at That’s also where you can go to subscribe to the podcast, or to contact us for any reason at all.


Steve Motenko: Like maybe to bring us into your workplace to work with your leaders.


Jim Hessler: You’ve got it. Thank you for listening.


Steve Motenko: Don’t forget Rule Number 6.


Jim Hessler: Rule Number 6.



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