Maybe Coffee is For Everyone. Empathic Leadership vs. Fear Management

Explore the transformative power of empathic leadership over fear-based management in the workplace, as contrasted with the infamous "Coffee is for Closers" speech.
Ben Kill, Chartered MCIPD

  • The aggressive, fear-based leadership demonstrated in "Glengarry Glen Ross" is often held in high esteem by managers.

  • Contrarily, studies show that empathetic leadership improves morale, performance, and collaboration, and has more the long-term benefits than fear-based management.

  • Effective leadership relies on empathy and goal-setting, not power or intimidation, which often challenges the glorification of authoritarian figures in popular culture.

Most professionals have at least heard of Alec Baldwin’s famous “Coffee is for Closers” speech from Glengarry Glen Ross. In fact, I still read articles about the “genius” tactics Baldwin’s character employs to “motivate” his lacklustre sales force. However, I can’t think of any manager in my career who’s ever spoken that way to their employees. 

Has the world of management “gone soft,” or is Baldwin’s speech simply an example of Hollywood stretching the truth? Either way, I thought it would be interesting to explore just what our modern reverence for the CIFC speech says about us as leaders. Is empathetic leadership really the best option, or is fear-based management the superior choice?

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The Coffee is for Closers Scene: A Refresher

Glengarry Glen Ross tells the story of a group of real estate salesmen on an evening sit. The movie opens with Baldwin’s character, Blake, berating the salesman for seven minutes, screaming, “coffee is for closers” at Jack Lemmon’s Shelley Levene.

During the profanity-laden speech, Baldwin jumps between tossing out insults and threats to covering classic sales acronyms like AIDA and ABC. He brags about his selling abilities, his wealth, and his watch, all while questioning the team’s commitment, capabilities, and manhood.

I’ve probably read a dozen articles over the years about how CIFC is the most brilliant management speech ever, and how it is specifically designed to separate the wheat from the chafe. Of course, these articles often leave me wondering if any of the managers I’ve worked with were simply dying to unleash a torrent of insults on our employees.

And if so, what held them back?

Analysing Blake’s Approach to Management

Glengarry Glen Ross is actually based on a play by David Mamet and inspired by his own experiences working in an office. Therefore, it’s fair to say that Blake, who was written specifically for the movie adaptation, likely relates to someone Mamet actually worked with.

In examining the speech, we see a leader who manages through fear. Managers like Blake are “numbers people.” Rather than coach or engage, they prefer to threaten and demean, squeezing results from their workers like wringing water from a wet rag.

And it’s true that these types of leaders can indeed produce results, especially in highly competitive environments. So, while turnover may be high due to abusive management, those workers who can be motivated by negative encouragement can thrive under a Blake.

So why is it that we don’t see such managers like this guarding the coffee makers at Google, Salesforce, and Deloitte? 
Credit: Glengarry Glen Ross Movie

Shifts in Management Styles Over Time

It’s common for people to associate Blake’s approach to management with the “old guard.” Indeed, it’s true that leadership under the Baby Boomer generation had a much more authoritarian flair. While Blake is certainly an over-the-top representation, it wasn’t uncommon for management to demand hard work and dedication via a command-and-control style. Fear, be it of repercussions, job loss, or some other negative motivator, was a common managerial tactic for thousands of bosses.

Yet this started to change as Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z entered the workforce. Being an effective leader suddenly became more about workforce development, active listening, and engagement. During this shift in organizational behaviour, those more familiar with the older ways of doing things would often decry the new way as “weak” and “passive.”

And, perhaps, they have a point. The enduring popularity of the CIFC speech is a testament to the fact that at least some workers and managers prefer Blake’s leadership style. This would seem to lend credence to the idea that one can, if surrounded by the right people, abuse their way into producing results. But one question still remains: does it produce better results?

The Rise of Empathetic Leadership

The fact is that leaders exist for just one reason: to set goals and help the people working with them achieve those goals. And given that managers like Blake are “numbers people,” they should, in theory, be open to hearing what the numbers actually say. Because the truth is that empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders.

In fact, even going back to the days of Pavlov, studies have found that positive reinforcement is far more conducive to creating a constructive, nurturing environment, especially in the long term. Contrarily, because negative reinforcement only stresses the avoidance of an unpleasant scenario, it hinders long-term growth in exchange for short-term benefits.

One study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that work environments that lack empathy actually hinder performance and collaboration. Meanwhile, a similar study from Georgetown University found that “incivility” in the workplace clearly affects performance, turnover, and the customer experience across sectors. Perhaps most telling of all is this study by Ernst & Young, which shows that 86% of employees believe empathetic leadership boosts morale. In comparison, 87% of employees say empathy is essential to fostering an inclusive, and therefore more productive, environment.

To be fair, studies that attempt to investigate the effects of authoritarian leadership on employees are largely mixed. Some, like this one (and this one) found positive correlations between this type of leadership and increased productivity. However, it’s worth noting that how these studies define authoritarianism has much more to do with control over projects and employees than it does with threats, verbal abuse, or coffee deprivation. The leaders in these studies aren’t empathetic, per se, but they aren’t “Blakes” either.

Conclusion: Blake Isn’t a Hero, But You Can Be

Whether you think Blake from Glengarry Glen Ross is a trailblazing leader with some unorthodox tactics or an abusive sociopath doesn’t really matter. The man who wrote the speech, David Mamet, ensured that the salespeople reacted with overwhelming negativity. While these responses are obviously fiction, watching people fawn over Blake’s managerial approach is a bit like having your boss say they want to build a Death Star or listening to someone espouse the brilliant philosophy of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden.

Essentially, it frequently leaves us wondering just what movie they were really watching.

Because while Alec Baldwin’s portrayal (and the speech itself) are mesmerizing, Mamet clearly intended it to be an example of what not to do. In fact, even if Mamet intended to portray Blake as some sort of managerial anti-hero, out here – in real life – those tactics will do much more harm than good.

As leaders and managers, we don’t have to be rich. We don’t have to have a nice watch. We don’t even have to be particularly fond of the people working for us. But it is our job to set goals and help the people we work with achieve them. And if you go “by the numbers,” as Blake would, the best way to do that is empathy, not enmity.

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Empathetic Leadership F.A.Q.

What is the main contrast between empathetic leadership and fear-based management?

Empathetic leadership focuses on understanding, collaboration, and positive reinforcement, leading to improved morale, performance, and teamwork. In contrast, fear-based management relies on intimidation, power, and negative reinforcement, which may yield short-term results but hinders long-term growth.

How does the "Coffee is for Closers" speech from "Glengarry Glen Ross" fit into the discussion on management styles?

The speech epitomizes fear-based management through aggressive tactics and intimidation. It serves as a reference point for examining the effectiveness and ethical considerations of such approaches in real-world leadership.

What does research say about the effectiveness of empathetic leadership?

Multiple studies, including those from the Academy of Management Journal, Georgetown University, and Ernst & Young, have shown that empathetic leadership significantly boosts morale, fosters an inclusive and productive environment, and enhances performance and collaboration, outweighing the outcomes of authoritarian leadership styles.

What are the key benefits of empathetic leadership in the workplace?

Empathetic leadership brings numerous advantages, including increased morale, enhanced team collaboration, higher employee engagement, and improved performance. It fosters a supportive environment that encourages innovation, reduces turnover, and builds a strong sense of community among team members.

How does fear-based leadership impact employee performance and morale?

While fear-based leadership can result in short-term compliance and potentially quick results, it negatively impacts employee morale, increases stress levels, and leads to higher turnover rates. Over time, it can erode trust, diminish creativity, and hinder the overall performance of a team.

Can empathetic leadership improve employee retention?

Yes, empathetic leadership significantly improves employee retention. By creating a positive and inclusive work environment, employees feel valued and understood, which increases their loyalty to the company and reduces the likelihood of seeking employment elsewhere.

How does empathetic leadership influence team collaboration?

Empathetic leadership promotes open communication, mutual respect, and trust, which are crucial for effective team collaboration. It encourages team members to share ideas, support one another, and work together towards common goals, leading to more innovative solutions and successful outcomes.

What role does empathetic leadership play in fostering an inclusive workplace?

It plays a pivotal role in fostering an inclusive workplace by valuing diversity, encouraging the sharing of different perspectives, and ensuring every team member feels respected and included. This approach not only enhances team dynamics but also contributes to a more creative and innovative work environment.

How does fear-based leadership affect company culture?

Fear-based leadership can create a toxic company culture characterized by mistrust, competition, and insecurity. It discourages open communication and can stifle innovation and growth by prioritizing short-term results over long-term development and employee well-being.

In what ways does empathetic leadership contribute to a company's success?

Empathetic leadership contributes to a company's success by building a strong foundation of trust, loyalty, and mutual respect. This environment nurtures employee development, stimulates innovation, and enhances customer satisfaction, leading to sustained growth and competitive advantage.

Can fear-based leadership ever be effective?

While fear-based leadership might achieve immediate compliance and results, its effectiveness is generally considered short-lived and detrimental in the long run. The negative impacts on employee well-being, company culture, and sustainable performance often outweigh any temporary gains.

How does empathetic leadership enhance decision-making processes?

Empathetic leadership enhances decision-making by considering diverse viewpoints and understanding the broader impact of decisions on employees, customers, and the organization. This inclusive approach leads to more thoughtful, comprehensive, and effective solutions.

What is the long-term impact of empathetic vs. fear-based leadership on organizational growth?

Empathetically led organizations tend to experience sustainable growth, innovation, and resilience, driven by a motivated, loyal, and collaborative workforce. In contrast, organizations relying on fear-based leadership may face challenges in adaptability, employee burnout, and high turnover, hindering long-term success.

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