Getting tough

I've been thinking a lot about organisations and management lately, and the question that keeps coming up is how to get things done without upsetting people or wrecking interpersonal relationships.

There seem to be two opposing schools of management around at the moment. In the blue corner, we have the touchy-feely, "I'm here for you" approach, full of words like "empowerment", "development" and "mentoring" - creating positive spaces into which employees can reach their potential and feel valued. And in the red corner, there's Alan Sugar, swearing at fools, demanding 111% effort, results yesterday - humiliation as motivation.

Most management courses these days will not teach you the "do it or you're fired" approach. Instead, dozens of best-selling business books relate wonderful stories about how "we just let everyone do whatever they wanted, and suddenly our profits quadrupled," and the like. So it's interesting that in popular culture, business management is increasingly depicted as good ol' fashioned, ball-breaking rage. Maybe we're craving something here that touchy-feely management isn't giving us.

As an advocate of "sociablism", you'd probably expect me to be firmly in the blue corner, harnessing positive human social interactions rather than trampling people's needs in pursuit of money and standards. But much as I hate to admit it, I've always had a grudging respect for people who can "get things done". More than that, I remember a former boss of mine once saying to me, "now Andy, here's a development opportunity for you: read this document and tell me what it says." I remember wishing he'd just said "I can't be arsed to read this. I pay you, you do it." There's an insincerity about much of modern management that I find uncomfortable, just as I find Alan Sugar's approach uncomfortable too. Instead of harnessing people's personal desires to benefit our businesses, shouldn't it be the other way around?

My friend Charlie once told me that the free market is based on the rational pursuit of self-interest, but companies are based on the irrational suppression of self-interest to a made-up story. Management these days sometimes seems like a hypnotic process of convincing people that their best interests will be served by playing their part in the grand plan. It's particularly worrying in many social enterprises, where hard-working people can be ruthlessly exploited and burnt-out in pursuit of the "greater good". At least Alan Sugar is honest: he wants you to make him money, and if you do, he'll make you money too. (The rest is just showbiz.)

As someone who has worked with friends, and befriended work colleagues, for many years, my biggest challenge in business has always been how to get things done without destroying social and professional relationships. What do you do when your friend lets you down? When do you say "getting this done is more important than our friendship?" Can we be sociable and get things done at the same time?

Business traditionally tends to view itself as a special case, distinct from the social and familial interactions. It works to higher standards, in pursuit higher purposes, and follows its own rules. But in reality, business is no different to any other part of human life. Families have confrontations, and so do boards of directors. Friends argue about missed deadlines and stolen girlfriends. And just as there are times to be fierce in business, so too there are times to be fierce in other areas of your life. Take the ideology out of it, and it's all just human beings interacting, positively and negatively. We're all people, and we all deserve to be treated as such - even when we're being fired.

I think we can learn a lot from organisational theory about how we live our lives and work to make our worlds better. But work should not be the place where we learn about these things, and business goals should not be only ones we use these techniques for. I have been quietly focussing of late on cultivating fierceness in myself, finding healthy ways to get what I need from my society without recourse to bullying or manipulation. Fierceness, anger, disappointment are all essential parts of our social interaction. It's only when we dress them up in "greater good" narratives that they become dangerous.

We don't need to choose between being sociable and getting things done. Sometimes we must embrace the tougher aspects of "sociablism", to get what we need from each other.