The Office Bad Guy: Can a Leader Assign Somebody Else to Do the Dirty Work?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “How Office ‘Bad Guys’ Handle the Role.” The article gives a peek at those hired by leaders to “do the dirty work of delivering negative feedback, axing cherished projects or laying people off.” According to the Journal, this is in the service of helping bosses perpetuate a myth – namely, that they’re nice folks “spreading warmth and cheer.”

The article refers to a well-read Atlantic Monthly piece back in June announcing that for leaders “It Pays to Be a Jerk.” Now, the Journal goes one better by peeling back the covers on a cottage industry set up to cover for leaders’ Machiavellian ways by taking on bad-guy tasks so leaders can perpetuate a good-guy pretense.

This is a cynical – and ultimately counterproductive – fiction. When it comes to competent leaders, they do the tough work themselves. They don’t “rent” tough guys to do it. Nor do they agonize over the phony dilemma of being nice (and “losing,” according to dubious studies) or being a jerk (and, thus, “winning,” according to similarly misleading information). Instead, real leaders focus on doing their jobs courageously and responsibly. And they do their own communicating – of good and bad news – in clear, specific and direct ways.

In fact, outsourcing the dirty work communicates all the wrong things. It’s manipulative, disingenuous and strikes at the very heart of trust. Most people – even when they don’t like decisions made by leaders – appreciate that they didn’t hide behind others, blame their decisions on things they couldn’t control, or explain them away altogether. The best leaders take responsibility and tell the truth – as unpleasant as it might be.

In the 2009 film “Up in the Air,” George Clooney and Anna Kendrick played the roles of hired guns flown in to dispense bad news to employees so that their apparently nice-guy bosses could avoid their unpleasant responsibilities.   Not only does the Clooney-Kendrick duo wind up with hollow lives, but no employee would ever be fooled by any leaders dodging an unpleasant conversation. Not only do employees always know who’s making the calls, but experienced leaders don’t shy away from taking responsibility.

Real leaders don’t need bad guys to do the tough work of layoffs, demotions or reassignments. They don’t need others to sunset projects that are no longer viable. They don’t need HR departments to sanitize feedback. And they don’t spend their time worrying about bad guy or good guy labels. They simply do their jobs.

By Joel Peterson