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Work In Progress: Aggression Loses Some Of Its Punch

8 minute read
Francine Russo

A money-management firm with a nice-guy culture was looking for an eats-nails-for-breakfast, kick-butt manager to run a new area of its portfolio. The first hire was aggressive with a capital A. In an office where flamboyant egos were scarce, the hotshot’s first move was to order $200,000 worth of office furniture. “He needed to be a star,” reports Elaine Eisenman of Management & Capital Partners, whose firm was enlisted to find a better match. The new guy flamed in four months, just long enough to get the furniture delivered. You know what the A stood for.

What’s the state of aggression these days? The abrupt departure of Lucent’s Deborah (Hurricane Debby) Hopkins touched off the usual fulminations: that aggressiveness, which is rewarded in men, is punished in women. No question, gender unfairness still operates. But more to the point, aggressiveness as a trait, in men or women, is less in vogue. Period. If you think of it as a stock, “its value has been diluted,” says Patrick Wright, chairman of the human-resource-studies department at Cornell.

That backstabbing, rule-breaking megalomaniac who would gladly use you as a doormat is less and less tolerated across a range of industries. “It used to be that aggressiveness–the Type A personality–was valued,” observes Steven Berglas, author of The Success Syndrome: Hitting Bottom When You Reach the Top. “Our culture built a Ben Franklinesque doctrine: Hustle; don’t lose a minute.”

The corporate-culture doctors now say you have to distinguish between “good” and “bad” aggressiveness–like good and bad cholesterol. The good kind is more in demand than ever, asserts Terry Schuler, senior vice president of HR at Avery Dennison. “Business is more unforgiving today,” he says, “and the marketplace has upped the ante for drive and results.”

Harnessing the good, culling the bad: that’s where things get dicey. Since the mid-’90s, a growing number of companies have looked to the success of Jack Welch with General Electric to guide them through this psychologically ambiguous terrain. GE’s mandate from the top is that high performers–even prodigies–who unrepentantly trash company values are given the boot.

Tony Eldridge, 40, a senior manager with consultants Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, taught himself to adapt to this changing landscape. “Before, it was all about what you as an individual could achieve and get credit for. Now you have to give up personal ownership–which goes against all my education in business school. But sometimes you have to put down that voice in the back of your head screaming ‘Me! Me! Me!’ and ask, ‘O.K., if I get the recognition, what will be the cost to me?'” The cost is high, Eldridge says, because co-workers get turned off and avoid working with you.

The value of the lone wolf has fallen in direct proportion to the rising complexity of doing business on a global scale. No one can create or market a product alone anymore, so interrelatedness is a necessity. To foster it, companies have shifted how they evaluate and reward people. Increasingly, they reward the pack. “We think the era of individual heroics is over,” declares Kathleen Donovan, Pfizer’s vice president of HR for U.S. pharmaceuticals. It ended for the drug giant as the company grew rapidly in the ’90s and began taking on vastly more complicated–medically, socially and politically–diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. “The whole marketplace–and customer profile–is more complex,” Donovan explains. “We need global teams.” Pfizer now ties salary and bonuses to team results. A key player may be on more than one team and still can get personal incentives, but the balance has shifted.

Consider too what happens at downsized companies, where the resources are spread thin. At Lucent, a dizzying sequence of restructurings, layoffs and revised business strategies has reduced internal competition in favor of playing nice together. Before its fiscal year began last Oct. 1, notes Pam Kimmet of Lucent’s HR department, the focus for salespeople was hitting their numbers by pushing their own products–a Lucent optical networking system, say, vs. data networking. Now the company needs to sell integrated systems that may include a little of each. So salesfolk have to join forces.

Lucent is not leaving any of this to chance–or to benevolent human nature. The new rule is that no one wins unless the company overall hits its targets–a mandate made imperative by Lucent’s precarious state. So last year no one got bonuses. Once the company makes its numbers, it creates a kind of prize fund and divvies up the dough according to how a team performed and what each member contributed. A staff member on a successful team can make zilch or more than everybody else. But nobody gets anything unless his team wins.

Even on Wall Street, the natural habitat of the lone wolf, it’s harder to run solo. “On Wall Street, aggression was equated with sales,” observes Larry Fraser of Management & Capital Partners, consultants in hiring and organizational effectiveness. “But the aggression now prevalent on Wall Street is institutional aggressiveness in the market and a downward trend in individual success at any cost.” Ten years ago, he notes, 10 of the top 15 institutional brokers on the Street paid employees by commission. Five years ago, that number was down to five. In the first quarter of this year, the last holdout, Robertson Stephens, switched to salary and bonus.

In retail brokerage, where greed rules, the picture is also changing. For most brokers, the era of trading stocks all day is gone. The business today is about acquiring assets, which may involve mortgages, retirement and estate planning, even selling houses. Many brokers still get commissions, but the trend is toward fees based on a percentage of assets. And serving the owners of these assets means working with others in your firm. In May, for example, Merrill Lynch announced it was aiming to have 40% of its 16,000 brokers work in teams to rev up its service to high-income clients.

Companies are also paying more attention to the dollar cost of fallout from overly aggressive managers. “Lawsuits for harassment or creating a hostile work environment have made companies more concerned with the consequences of badly controlled aggression,” says Marilyn Puder-York, a psychologist and executive coach to FORTUNE 100 companies. Conflict has costs: that’s the message many are getting. Tapping into this new consciousness, HRTools.com a company that supplies analytics to HR managers, has introduced the Organizational Conflict Financial Cost Calculator eTool. Just plug in the numbers (including employees involved in conflict) and estimate dollars lost from wasted time and the exodus of good staff.

Of course, companies don’t summarily fire their most talented aggressors. They parole them first for coaching. At AFLAC, says HR vice president Sharon Douglas, the hard chargers may be assigned to a more aggressive team, perhaps in strategic planning or the R.-and-D. segment of IT, where they can be “a catalyst.”

“I’m not sure we want to get rid of the aggression,” says Puder-York. She trains people to turn their aggression from “reactive” to “strategic.” When a person’s internal anger or anxiety is provoked and he or she reacts without deliberation, Puder-York explains, “the reaction could take the form of a nasty comment or e-mail to a colleague or a tantrum.” She helps clients channel their anger to achieve results.

Jay Levine, 44, a director of technology at a large publishing business, was sent for coaching to David Peterson of Personnel Decisions International. “I’m very Type A, very driven,” says Levine. “I was very aggressive, results oriented. It was alienating to my peers.” His style had worked fine at a previous job where he had been “master of my own ship” of 120 souls. But when he moved to a company of 800 with five colleagues of equal rank and a more complex structure, his style got him into trouble–because he had to compete for resources, like the in-demand folks who know the company’s legacy systems, such as mainframes. Working with Peterson for several months, Levine learned patience and skills–how to listen, when to step back. Now he says he can do what was hard for him before–“work with five other people to get one thing done.”

Search firms say they have their work cut out for them finding hires with the right brand and degree of aggressiveness. Aggressiveness is still the reigning qualification for some companies and some jobs. George Ludwig, a sales skills trainer who teaches courses like “You Gotta Be Bold,” insists that companies are demanding his courses more than ever. Yet even in sales, he acknowledges, managers expect top performers to share information or technology skills with others on the sales force to benefit the company. “The mind-set used to be,” he recalls, “if a guy was a top producer blowing the numbers away, he could be an obnoxious, arrogant, cigar-smoking so-and-so, and they would keep him.” Now they might show him the door–aggressively.

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