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Ken Keller: Tales from the Trenches

Are you a passive aggressive owner?

Posted: April 2, 2014 2:00 p.m.
Updated: April 2, 2014 2:00 p.m.

Right after I joined the company, I realized the owner was doing some strange things.

Monday through Thursday the dress code was suit and tie, and Fridays were “casual day.”

So what did this guy do? Monday through Thursday he dressed casually; Fridays he wore a suit and tie.

Once he walked into the hallway of the office, he stopped so everyone could see him and then began loudly sniffing the air.

He did this several times, gaining attention, and then announced, to all those watching, “Smell the overhead around here! Smell the overhead!”

Then he returned to his office.

When this owner got mad at someone, he refused to look into the eyes of that employee. I was clued in on this the first time I supposedly did something that upset him.

He never directly confronted anyone.

Instead, he stored up his frustrations and let loose in front of a group. Even in that setting, he never specifically called out those with whom he was angry.

People heard about their so-called offenses through the grapevine.

Apparently he never forgot or forgave any of these alleged transgressions, and he spent time getting “even” in some very small and petty ways – this gave him the feeling of superiority.

After witnessing these odd behaviors, I nicknamed him “Psycho.” I refer to my tenure at his company as “my time at the asylum.”

Now, when I meet with owners for the first time, I identify possible passive aggressive behavior by assessing how the owner interacts with his or her employees.

Once I get the CNN sound bite about the company, I inquire about human resources. It’s a fair issue; salaries and burden are usually the single largest business expense category.

In a business, employees can be the largest asset or its greatest bane. Which category it falls into is usually a direct result of the owner’s behavior.

First, I ask about the management structure.

If there is no published organizational chart, I assume that, essentially, everyone reports to the owner, which negates the role of all the managers on the payroll.

Second, I inquire about the performance review system.

If no such system exists, I determine that the owner decides who gets paid what, who gets bonuses and how much, who gets additional time off, who can leave early and so forth, all based on whether or not he or she likes an employee.

Third, I verify the actual management authority levels.

I ask who has authorization to spend company money, to what limit and for what purpose. I sit quietly until the owner shares that they are really the only one permitted to spend “my money.”

No team exists with this kind of employer; it is a group of individuals sharing a single purpose: getting a paycheck. Nothing else matters, and employees will do whatever it takes to maintain this income stream, to the extent that employees will fight each other to keep the money and favors coming.

As you read this, you may think that this column does not apply to you, and it might not.

I am willing to bet that Psycho believes he is still the best owner on the planet because no one has ever had the courage to tell him differently.

The owner who trusts no one will discover that their employees do not trust them.

The owner who shows no loyalty will reap that in return.

The owner who pits employees against each other for favors can expect disengagement, low productivity and anger.

Do you want this to be your legacy?


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