The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does it matter if Amy Klobuchar is a mean boss?

Ahead of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s expected presidential announcement this weekend, a story published with anonymous accounts from her staffers describing her as a habitually terrible boss.

The story alleges that at least three people turned down the job to run the Minnesota Democrat’s 2020 campaign because of her reputation of creating a demoralizing work environment, the HuffPost reported. The only actual data to substantiate rumors of one of the worst bosses in Congress is staff turnover. Klobuchar has consistently had the highest of any senator.

As the presidential primary campaign heats up over the next year, Klobuchar’s management style will surely be further scrutinized. But should it be? Is how a person treats their staff a reflection of how they’ll perform in their job?

On Capitol Hill, it’s always been widely accepted that there are lawmakers known for their hostility and outrageous demands. The worst among them has always been an open secret, but it’s never affected their electoral prospects. In the late 1990s, one of the defenses of President Bill Clinton after he had an affair with a 20-year-old White House intern was that his decidedly immoral behavior did not make him unable to run the country.

While treatment of staff has never factored into a politician’s success before, some business management experts think it could foretell an ineffectual leader.

Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership and management at the Harvard Business School, said instilling a culture of fear in the workplace limits people from performing at their best.

“Any kind of derision leads to fear leads to conformity but never creativity and ingenuity,” Edmondson said. “You’re not going to get new thinking from fear. Ever.”

Moreover, said Bob Sutton, professor at Stanford Business School and author of “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One,” using fear and anger as a motivator can yield short-term results but “is a drug that has so many side effects, it’s really dangerous to use.” Sutton compared it to creating a “Trumpian bubble” where staff only relay to their boss what he or she wants to hear to avoid being on the receiving end of their boss’s wrath.

But if Klobuchar’s treatment of her staff does dog her throughout her campaign, it will raise the question of whether a man with such a reputation would face the same scrutiny.

Edmondson noted the unfair double standard that being “tough is a compliment for men but an insult when used on a woman.”

“Women pay a larger price and have to walk the line of being nice and being competent and tough,” Sutton said. “In her defense, I wonder if a man acted that way, would he get such severe response, even reputationally.”

Another problem for Klobuchar is that these stories are antithetical to her outward persona as an affable, easygoing Midwestern. When she announces this weekend, she’ll have cookies and hot chocolate at her event. She’s “Minnesota nice,” setting her apart from the other “coastal liberals” running for president. She’s also beloved in her state, winning her reelection in 2018 by 24 points.

“There are many people in this world who are very bad down and very good up,” said Jeffrey Pfeffer, who teaches a “Path to Power” class at Stanford Business School.

But Pfeffer is not convinced that how Klobuchar treats her staff portends her success as president as much as how she gets along with her colleagues.

“If you think about it, the problem with [President] Trump is not that he’s a crappy boss, it’s that he doesn’t get along well with peers and with the people he needs to work with to get legislation passed,” he said. “I’m not sure the job of being president is a job of management in the sense of being a CEO, but frankly as I see it, it’s about convincing people to do what needs to be done.”