Can yelling be a leadership strategy?

businessman yelling into megaphoneSome leaders berate employees and even lapse into cruelty—and still engender loyalty from the troops. Others who yell and harshly chastise people get labeled as ogres.

Why do some hotheads get away with it while others are tarnished?

New research shows that it’s all in the context. A leader’s perception can swing from abusive to motivating depending on a host of social factors:

Employees make progress. People crave professional development. They want to gain skills, contribute to a winning team and advance their career.

Steve Jobs screamed at Apple staffers and often insulted them. But they tolerated his antics because they felt that they were doing exceptional work and helping change the world.

Leaders build trust. If employees believe a leader is authentic and trustworthy, they’re apt to accept stinging criticism without buckling. They may not like what they hear, but they will understand the leader’s motivation for speaking out—to drive everyone to produce superior results.

Leaders explain their actions forthrightly. It’s easier to withstand a CEO’s tirade if that CEO levels with the team about swirling crises or other pressure points. Openness about adverse circumstances, from navigating economic slowdowns to negotiating risky deals, can help a leader bond with a team and make employees more forgiving about temper tantrums.

Peers support their fiery leader. If employees keep hearing from peers—and informed observers such as consultants—that their leader is a genius, then they might overlook sporadic outbursts. They may think, “More experienced people than me think highly of our leader, so I should make the best of this.”

— Adapted from “Abusive Leader or Master Motivator?,” Robert Bies, Thomas Tripp and Debra Shapiro,