Spock from Getty Images — Mother Teresa by Tim Graham — Getty Images

Mr. Spock vs Mother Teresa — How you should make business decisions

With all due respect to both well-known figures, we are using them to illustrate how to navigate the colossal challenge of a modern-day manager. While there is no single right way to manage, you have probably faced both extremes in your career if you have worked for at least a couple of years in a professional environment.

On the one hand, there are “Spock” managers who are excessively rational, clearly lack human emotions and empathy, and are likely to approach their management directions more like military orders… On the other hand, there are “Mother Teresa” managers: excessively compassionate, great listeners, and likely to wait for months before firing obvious bottom performers on their team.

Which one exhibits the ideal manager profile?

What is the ideal manager persona? As Andy Grove describes in his book “High Output Management,” “The single most important task of managers is to get peak performance from its subordinates.” In our case, both profiles are extremes at opposite sides, and neither extreme is even close to being the ideal manager.

Joe Liemandt, CEO of Trilogy, frames the issue in a quote he gave to the book, “Judgement: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls:”

“A huge percent of bad decisions around people I feel are made because [managers] misalign the emotional and the logical. I know personally for me that that’s what I struggle with. I come to a good logical answer [to a situation] but then I can’t make myself make it because I don’t want the emotional pain.”

When should a manager be like Spock?

  1. Defining success metrics and aggressive goals
  2. Evaluating team performance (i.e. be like Spock for the good of team members; remove any guess-work in understanding how people are performing)
  3. During management exercises to evaluate team productivity (i.e. Time Motion Studies and Shrink to Grow exercises)

When should a manager be like Mother Teresa?

  1. During onboarding (e.g. share all available resources, introduce team members and tools)
  2. During offboarding (e.g. sincerely offer to be a reference)
  3. While coaching low performing team members with whom they already shared objective productivity metrics (i.e. Spock). We still want to encourage people to do their best.
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

There is a time and a place to channel each persona, but most companies use them the opposite way. When they sit with their employee rank and review in front of them, they use their Mother Teresa persona to decide who to let go. And they think, “this person has five kids in their family; if I let him go he may struggle to find another job.” They use their Mother Teresa skills during the decision-making process. And then when they get to the actual firing stage, they use their Spock skills, as simple as “I’m sorry, you’re fired” …not very compassionate.

People spend all of their compassion during the decision-making process and then use their Spock skills during the actual execution of the process. This is really the fastest way to undermine professional relationships. The way it should go is the exact opposite. When you make decisions, they should be based on your Spock brain; “who is the best person to deliver the business value” is what you need to ask yourself. It is the way that every business needs to run. It’s simple math.

Equally importantly, you need compassion after you make the decisions. You must be as clear as

“Hey, you understand you’re the bottom performer right? It’s super clear; I have the data and have shown you over the weeks. I know it’s hard for you. Here are other alternatives in the company where I think you may fit better. Otherwise, I’d be glad to give references and help others understand your strengths. I understand the difficulty you’re in but I have to do my job, and my only job is increasing business value. I’m getting paid to do the right things for the business.”

Remember, when you Mother Teresa people for too long, you are not doing them any favors either. Instead, you are keeping them in a job they are objectively bad at, when they could be elsewhere, actually succeeding.

The science behind bad management decisions

The Harvard Business Review published a great piece by Michael Schrage on how Data-Driven Management Can Also Be Compassionate, using Amazon and Jeff Bezos as examples.

Against Empathy by Paul Bloom — professor of cognitive science and psychology at Yale

Scientific research by Paul Bloom, professor of cognitive science and psychology at Yale University and author of Against Empathy, discovered that empathy can distort our judgment. In his study, two groups of people listened to the recording of a terminally ill boy describing his pain.

One group was asked to identify with and feel for the boy. The other group was instructed to listen objectively and not engage emotionally. After listening to the recording, each person was asked whether they would move the boy up a prioritized treatment list constructed and managed by medical doctors. In the emotional group, three-quarters of participants decided to move him up the list against the opinion of medical professionals and potentially putting other individuals at risk. In the objective group, only one-third of the participants made the same recommendation.

This study demonstrates how empathy triggers our altruistic impulses, resulting in poor judgment that could harm many people for the benefit of one person. As leaders, empathy may cloud our professional judgment. It encourages bias and makes us less effective at making wise decisions.