The best approach to management: Tough love

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

One of the most pervasive debates about managing people is whether using “hard” or “soft” approaches produces better performance. Hard approaches seek to influence behavior by pressuring people to do things they would not have freely chosen to do. Soft ones seek to influence behavior by nurturing people to build a commitment to doing a good job.

Pop psychologists talk about tough love — the application of both hard and soft approaches at the same time. The basic idea is that people are willing to accept pressure and demands placed on them when they feel good about the source of those demands. As a college football star once said about his coach, “Bo is the only person in the world I will let kick me in the butt.” When the interviewer asked why, the player responded, “Because I know he loves me.”

The concept of tough love is well-known from some specific organizational environments, such as the Marines (think Lou Gossett and Richard Gere in “An Officer and a Gentleman”) and from some drug and delinquency treatment programs where the toughness is often far more apparent than the love. But interestingly, the concept has received virtually no attention from organizational scholars or even from practitioners in mainstream organizations.

I have recently completed an academic paper that examines the impact of a tough-love culture on organizational performance. I focused on an approach in British local government called Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships, which involve police, social workers who deal with at-risk youth, and other local services and regulatory agencies. The program's goal is to reduce crime. The partnerships have their own staff, regular meetings, some common budget items and many joint activities.

I did a survey of the managers of those partnerships to learn more about their activities and the organizations’ culture to see whether the management approach of the different partnerships had an impact on their success.

The overall answer to the question was yes. Furthermore, I found that partnerships with a tough-love culture had a higher reduction in crime than those that used only a hard or soft approach. (Note: I was looking at how the partnerships were managed internally, not whether their policing and/or social work practices embodied tough love. For the statistically inclined, I should add that I tested the relationships using interaction effects between hard and soft cultural features.)

Partnerships experienced the highest reduction in crime when people had warm feelings about the partnership but were reminded by their managers that they were legally obligated to participate and were asked tough questions about performance metrics by the partnership board. Simply creating warm feelings was not as effective, and pressuring people in the absence of warm feelings sometimes led to worse performance.

The tough features in these government organizations didn’t involve beating people or even firing them. Toughness consisted of various ways of pressuring people to perform.

I am inclined to think that using tough love has real potential for improving the performance of many organizations, perhaps especially government ones, where I suspect environments are often too soft or too punitive. It’s time to take tough love from boot camps and bring it into federal offices.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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