AOL's Armstrong: Boss or Workplace Bully?

It didn’t quite seem possible, but, there it was, within a matter of mind-numbing seconds, AOL Chairman and CEO Tim Armstrong went from chief rally man to insufferable bully.

Caught on tape on Monday while speaking to 1,000 AOL employees, Armstrong verbally admonished one of the staffers for photographing the company meeting—and then, fired him on the spot.

“Abel, put that camera down right now,” ordered Armstrong. Followed instantly by, “Abel. You’re fired!  Out!”

In my opinion, the consequences of Donald Trump-style public terminations are never good. In Armstrong’s case, he electrified blogs and business media with condemnations of his behavior and “leadership.” In fact, many have gone so far as to call for his firing – as much for his lack-luster accomplishments as the head of a once-thriving business as for his less-than-stellar interpersonal skills.

Abel, the employee under Armstrong’s verbal siege, most likely felt instant humiliation followed by the sudden emotional punch in the gut after realizing not only was he jobless, but he had been spontaneously canned in front of a crowd of stunned colleagues.

As for the AOL workforce, the consequences of a big boss behaving badly like Armstrong rapidly permeate the culture. Fear strikes fast and furiously. Most pronounced is fear of speaking up or doing something that may be considered risky—because, after all, the CEO didn’t like the actions of one worker and instantly opted to oust him.

Data collected by firms like my company readily show that when jobs are tight and business conditions are tough (as they clearly are for the financially struggling AOL), fear of losing one’s job rises in the workplace. Compound those dynamics with a CEO who demonstrates a reckless license to terminate whenever and wherever—the fear factor escalates.

Top bosses of organizations large and small should strive to create an environment that encourages their staff to speak up and offer ideas without retribution.

These three tips will help you get going:

Mind your say-do connection. Your actions speak louder than words. Saying one thing and doing another is noticed by others. You’ve got to go beyond simply professing interest in hearing others’ opinions. Stay calm in tone and relaxed in your body language when a contrary view is aired. Refrain from countering it or acting defensive by asking some open-ended questions.  Practice with a trusted colleague and focus on topics that are likely to trigger your hot button. Get her instant feedback on how your response measures up when countered.

Remove filters. I vividly remember working with Tony, a company president who inherited a fear-based workplace, spurred largely by the behavior of his predecessor. Among his early outreach practices was to conduct town hall meetings where he could speak—in person—with large groups of employees from multiple departments and levels. 

In his desire to hear straight from staffers, he eliminated the meeting MC role that had been traditionally assigned to the company’s human resources leader. He also stopped the practice of having employees write down comments on 3x5 cards, only to have them pre-reviewed and watered-down by the former president’s handlers. All those filters had put a lock on spontaneity and openness in communications between the workforce and top executive. 

Tony wanted a direct connection. He established some new meeting guidelines: he wanted to listen more than speak, no question or comment was off limits, and there would be no ‘meeting middlemen’ to buffer real exchanges. 

Tony’s new approach took several months for employees to both understand and trust. Once staffers realized that his ‘say-do’ style was in complete alignment, their voices were readily heard-during town hall meetings and after. Dozens would send Tony emails daily with comments and ideas. True to his no-filter rule, Tony read and answered them personally.

Praise in public. Apparently, Armstrong didn’t get the memo:  Praise in public; “punish” in private.  Whether you’re the CEO of a large organization, or the manager of a small department, it’s best to wait and counsel a member of the team who didn’t perform to expectations in a one-on-one setting, away from the crowd.  

Remember, any time you gather a group of employees together you’re tying up resources of time and money.  Don’t squander that investment by cutting someone off at the knees in front of everyone. No company can afford the operational or organizational loss triggered by plummeted morale. 

Use this valuable time wisely by finding opportunities to salute staffers who have gone above and beyond. Provide concrete explanations of what they did and how it contributed to business goals. By connecting those dots you can help others to see how they too can add value in their everyday jobs.

Many CEOs have earned their top spots by having the guts to make aggressive, shoot-from-the hip decisions that ultimately proved to be in the best interests of the company.  Here’s the caveat: make sure that when you shoot from the hip, the gun’s not pointed at your foot.

Linda Dulye is internationally recognized for helping many companies go spectator free. A former communications leader for GE and Allied Signal, Linda established Dulye & Co.  in 1998 with a practical, process-driven approach for improving communications and collaboration through an engaged workforce— a formidable competitive advantage, that she calls a Spectator-Free Workplace™.