Cracking the Whip

Cracking the Whip 1

Probably early days yet, but Whiplash (2014) seems to be one of those film titles which people can’t quite place until you say “It’s the one about drumming”.

Whiplash is an excellent film on all fronts: script, acting, music. What’s more, it has a thrilling pace – and a seat of the pants ride to boot, as you cheer for Andrew (played by Miles Teller) an aspiring jazz drumming student against his talented but terrifying and cruel conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). The film, which focuses on this tense relationship between teacher and student addresses the question of just how far do you drive for excellence and is it true you won’t get excellence if you don’t push?

Fletcher is hectoring, taunting, bullying and spiteful – all in his belief that only by driving performance will he breed a musical genius (he’s looking for the next jazz legend). He ponders that nobody ever seems to reach his high standards: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’ ”.

The film’s pace doesn’t really allow the viewer to drift off and think about something else, but at the back of my mind were recollections – both witnessed and anecdotal – of ‘psychopathic’ sales managers whose methods of ‘motivation’ would make Fletcher proud.

Such managers justify their actions in the belief that their staff are inherently lazy; that without cracking the whip they won’t do their job. And so, their alarmed staff try to work on in misery: in an atmosphere of rages, ritual humiliation and bullying of hapless individuals picked-out and picked-on. I’ve seen one such environment all the worse in the afternoons owing to the after effects of one particular manager’s liquid lunch…

Everyone who’s worked in sales knows it’s rarely an easy ride and sales people need to be resilient. We are at the mercy of external factors with so many ‘known unknowns’: the market, the economy, competitors, at times even the weather. Internal factors such as self-motivation play a critical part too. A good sales manager will have an armoury of techniques to keep up team spirit and motivate individuals. Armoury such as encouragement and praise when it is due – as well as games and incentives to sustain interest and focus. Additionally, they will communicate standards of professional behaviour and procedures, setting clear parameters of what is not acceptable. A sloppy sales force never gets very far. However, the minute a manager has to resort to insulting individuals in public, that manager is less in control than he may like to think. This doesn’t mean that targets should not be strived for, or that problems should not be confronted. I’ve often had to remind sales managers ‘there’s a time and a place for a rollocking’ meaning that if a shortfall in performance needs to be addressed, it should be done one-to-one and follow company/employment law procedures (sorry to be boring). If an individual is not cut out for the role they’re in, they should be let down gently. If they are in the right position, but experiencing difficulties or a crisis of confidence (it happens – even to the talented) the manager has to be prepared to do some work and provide appropriate training/support. Sometimes, all it takes is a ‘fireside chat’. Sure, no manager goes to work to make friends, but it’s a sad and common fact of office life that some (and I don’t exclude women) see it as an arena to inflict fear and intimidation in the belief that it’s the only way to get results.

It does not. And if it does, it won’t be for long.

Rather than start preaching about the legal requirement of ‘duty of care’ (which in my experience, most employers are usually good at understanding) let’s remind ourselves of the potential damage to profitability when staff are put under unreasonable and relentless intimidation. As well as weakening productivity, quality of sales can suffer: for example, reps functioning in ‘survival mode’ will be more likely to go for quick, but lower value sales. Furthermore, these examples of consequential costs should make any business owner blanch: compensation and/or legal costs, staff turnover, re-recruitment and re-training costs – in addition to the resulting loss of investment in training and experience. I’m not advocating that business owners lie awake at night paranoid about keeping their organisation’s name out of the law books – but it is for individual employers to weigh up whether such financial risks could ever be worth the indulgence of one crazy manager’s ego.

Postscript: 23rd February 2015 – last night Whiplash won three Oscars including one for J. K. Simmons (Best Supporting Actor). The film was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.