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Locker Room Leadership—Is That a Winning Workplace Strategy?

I met with a group of talented, thoughtful executives recently. We discussed values, culture and the role of speaking up in the face of organizational misdeeds. As we talked about leadership, I was asked a challenging question.

December 19, 2011

I met with a group of talented, thoughtful executives recently. We discussed values, culture and the role of speaking up in the face of organizational misdeeds. As we talked about leadership, I was asked a challenging question.

"You see top coaches walk right up to players, scream at them, grab them, get right in their faces, bless them out in public. They motivate—they get results. They win championships. They care about the team and players respect them. Why is it not proper for us to act the same way from time to time in our workplaces?"

I thought about my response for a few seconds. Right now, as we root for our top teams at the end of an exciting football season, we all want our favorites to wind up as champions.

As adults, when we go to games or watch them, we cheer, scream, yell, jump up and down and do high-fives. But the academic or professional football field, basketball court or hockey rink is not the same as the workplace that most of us inhabit. The goals are different as are the expectations of the participants and the overall context. The rules are different, too.

While lessons of teamwork, sacrifice, discipline and focus learned on fields of play can last a lifetime, some of the leadership strategies that succeed in athletic combat diminish rather than maximize workplace results. Health care professionals who routinely yell at and insult colleagues may get the job done, but they may also cause distractions leading to treatment errors, complications and even death. Executives who badger their direct reports may get them to work feverishly and cause them to keep quiet about problems, hazards and risks for fear of being marginalized, if not dismissed.

Yes, there may be exceptions, instances when in a quick passing moment, vital action—clear, forceful, direct, powerful and attention getting—is needed. There's a reason why we refer to the "heat of battle." But fortunately, those are relatively rare and extraordinary involving grave, immediate and potentially catastrophic circumstances.

The issue is not just the difference between sport and work. Getting in the face of a player in their teens or early 20s in the midst of a raging crowd on a big-stakes play in a moment of high tension may be what's needed.

The crowd is cheering as the bands blare out their fight songs. What happens in the next seconds or minutes can determine how a game and whole season turn out. With adrenaline surging in every direction, that may be the medicine of the moment needed to engage young adults. But that's not the case in most business workplaces.

There, winning extends over a long period of time and is not measured week to week or in the context of a single "play" that unfolds in a matter of seconds. In most of our jobs, there's a time and need for direct, unambiguous, clear direction.

That doesn't extend to demeaning and embarrassing others to get a point across. That's the part of locker room leadership that needs to stay in the locker room, if there's a limited place for it there at all.

Stephen Paskoff is president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI Inc., a provider of ethics and compliance learning solutions. He can be contacted at info@eliinc.com.