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The benefits of malcontents

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

Most leaders want to work with people with a positive attitude. But Howard Behar tolerates and even welcomes negative personalities.

Behar is the former president of Starbucks North America and co-author of It’s Not About the Coffee. A well-respected executive who lavished attention on employees, he joined Starbucks in 1989 and retired in 2003 after helping lead its global growth.

Behar spoke to Managing People at Work:

MPAW: How did you connect so well with employees at all levels?

Behar: I’d ask lots of questions like, “If you had a magic wand, what would you change in our organization?”

MPAW: I bet you heard a lot of griping.

Behar: Yes, they’d gripe. But the key is to listen and get those conversations up and out. In any organization, 10 to 20 percent of the people think the leaders are always perfect. Another 10 to 20 percent think the leaders can’t do anything right. You may think, “We should get rid of the malcontents.” But it’s exactly the opposite.

MPAW: But don’t negative employees deplete your energy?

Behar: Sure, but they also push you to improve. You have to put them in productive mode, not griping mode. I’d ask, “What would you do to change it?” Let them take on responsibility, not just complain.

MPAW: What kind of manager impresses you the most?

Behar: The “conscious competents”—the managers who are conscious about what they’re doing and why they do it well. And they can teach it. It takes a lot of work to determine why you do something well. Most people are unconscious competents: They’re unable to teach it to others.

MPAW: Starbucks is known for its people-centered culture. How did you nurture that?

Behar: A culture is not a marketing program. It’s not a project. You have to live it. You have to act on it all the time, even when you’re tired or bored. You have to put aside your needs and live the culture.

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