Coaching a professional basketball team is not different from managing a team of corporate employees. You have stars, utility players and bench warmers, all of whom thrive when their coach tailors his approach to their unique talents, weaknesses and contributions to the team. Bare Knuckle People Management speaks directly to managers who have been frustrated by the notion that all employees need to be treated equally and with kids’ gloves.

—Mike D’Antoni, Head Coach of the New York Knicks

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Phil Jackson: Passive-Aggressor, Shameless Self-Promoter

Flipping through the NY Times this morning, I saw an article about Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan’s sudden and unexpected resignation, purportedly over ongoing conflict with guard Deron Williams. Thinking there was a bare knuckle management message in there somwhere, I read on.

But I couldn’t get past the following quote from Lakers head coach, Phil Jackson, when he was asked to comment about Sloan’s retirement:

“You hate to see a guy go out without having won a championship after all the great teams he’s had.”

Phil, that’s just awful. It’s obvious you despise and/or disrespect Sloan, and we’ve always known about your penchant for self-promotion. So why not plainly say what you meant to communicate?:

“Wow, I can’t believe Jerry never won a title despite having Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone all those years. Everyone says the only reason I won my 11 titles is because I was blessed with the best players in NBA history. Everyone always holds this guy up as a smart, hard-working, innovative NBA coach, and he hasn’t won s#!t! I guess it’s not that easy coaching elite players, is it Jerry?…Is it?!”

Don’t want to reveal all the bad stuff you’re thinking? Then an emotionally-neutral – even bland – response such as this would have sufficed: “Jerry has been a fiercely competitive and successful coach in the league for a very long time. He will me missed.”

Open conflict isn’t for everyone – I get it. I rarely recommend that conflict-avoidant people bluntly state their concerns if they’re worried about the backlash. Look, direct conflict is hard for some people to handle, and I can appreciate their wish to steer clear.

But I always call out the passive-aggressors who lob destructive verbal missiles in the form of nicely-wrapped messages. These missiles are designed to simultaneously prop up the speaker and tear down another. If you’re going to stick it to someone, you might as well take off the pretty little wrappings and say what you’ve got to say. If you don’t want to deliver the harsh message, then keep it neutral and unemotional. Trust me, Phil, you’ll come off better.

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