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December 13, 2006

‘Scare Your Employees’: The Best CEO Game Ever


“Miss Allen, I’d like to see you a week from Friday to discuss possible directions for your future with the company,” I wrote in an e-mail to Miss Allen. 


I have big plans for Miss Allen. Good plans. Raises. Promotions. But there was no need to tell her that in the e-mail. I can save the good news for the meeting itself. Besides, in truth, I could have called her into my office at a moment’s notice and had this discussion. There was no need to schedule it a week-and-a-half in advance.


So why did I do so? Because that’s the only way to play one of the best CEO games ever invented: Scare Your Employees.


Scare Your Employees is great. It’s a fairly simple concept, but not always easy to pull off convincingly.


Obviously, employment status is a topic rife with possibilities. An employee’s regularly scheduled review is a good opportunity for scaring, but you can’t be stupid about it. You can tell them it’s time for their review, and do so with a concerned look on your face. But if you’re going to go that route, you can’t be scheduling it, say, three weeks in advance. Anyone can figure out that if you’re going to fire or discipline them, you’re not going to wait three weeks.


The best idea here is to move the review up a week or two, and tell them about it maybe two days in advance. Just enough time to scare them and make plausible that they are in some kind of trouble. (Besides, you don’t want them worrying about it too long. That spells plummeting productivity and resumes on the market. Have your fun but don’t draw it out too long.)


Information about company finances works well too. You can call a company meeting with a short memo that explains: “We’ll discuss what is needed from everyone to maintain our financial prowess.” The key word here is “prowess.” No one is really sure what it means. In certain uses, it is clearly out of place. French military prowess. MSNBC’s ratings prowess. But the context in which I used it here – what does it mean? Super strength? Survival? No one will have the foggiest idea.


Now keep in mind, an announcement like this will inspire a lot of whispering, especially in the ladies’ room, where you’re not allowed to go, unless you’re a lady. So call this meeting no more than two hours ahead of time. You don’t want them freaking out any longer than that.


One of the best ways to scare your employees simply involves your own behavior. Nothing raises questions more than when the CEO starts acting weird. (Granted, this one doesn’t work too well for me.) What would prompt their speculation that you are a) about to sell the company; b) having a mid-life crisis; c) losing your marbles; d) all of the above and more?


Grow a beard. Or shave the one you already have. Stop wearing a suit and start wearing jeans. Or the opposite of that, as the case may be. Start walking around talking on your cell phone, then nervously ending the calls whenever one of them sees you. Constantly bring up some freaky concept like “the company’s emotional balance quotient.”


They will notice. “Carleton is acting weird! What’s going on?”


What indeed? Does Carleton have a mistress? Is he taking Tae Bo during those long lunches? (That would explain the Billy Blanks poster that suddenly showed up in Carleton’s office.)


Let’s face it. As CEO, you have unlimited power. If you don’t use it to scare the stuffing out of people and amuse yourself in the process, what good is it to you? Obviously you want to play Scare Your Employees responsibly. Take the gag too far, they’ll see through it right away. Play it too convincingly, and for too long, and they’ll all freak out and quit.


That’s why the game requires skill, practice and dedication. A first-time Scare Your Employees player can lose his or her entire fortune with a bad performance. I suggest that you find a mentor who can help you do it right before trying it yourself. CEO self-amusement is too crucial an undertaking to be left to the uninitiated.


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This is Column # DFK58.  Request permission to publish here.