Continued Learnings From A Decades Old Case

HBR interviewed Harvard Business School Dean, Nitin Nohria, to discuss the 1998 case titled, “Rob Parson at Morgan Stanley.” The case has several lessons that remain relevant decades later.

The complex dilemma is whether or not Morgan Stanley, specifically Rob’s manager, should promote a high performer who lacks interpersonal skills and ignores the newly published company values. It also adds for reflection on the accountability of managers regarding employee and leader performance in all metrics, not just productivity.

As a manager, for years Rob was apparently given freedom to fix an important business issue for which he excelled yet caused personnel issues from the beginning.  Despite turning a blind eye to the brisk and uncivil behavior, when Rob’s manager considered him for a promotion, he could not ignore the worst 360-reviews of any he had ever seen. 

The case poses a complex dilemma: do the means justify the end—in other words, can bad behavior be ignored if the productivity results are achieved? This was the situation, and Rob expected to be promoted.  However, if he is, what message does that send regarding his bad behavior and the recent values promoted?

Yes, he met all business metrics, but aren’t bad behaviors such as, disrespecting, demoralizing and mistreating others, essential metrics as well? Does business performance trump values? More subtly, the case also encourages reflection about the accountability of managers in evaluating employee performance.

So, would you recommend that Rob Parson be promoted to manager partner? Why or Why not?  Dr. Nohria presented that the answer is quite complicated, complex and not a simple yes or no.

He ended the interview with one last thought: self-reflection. He asked listeners and managers to consider the role Paul Nasser, Rob’s manager, had in creating this situation, not just Rob Parson’s behavior.  The situation is not just a ‘problem employee’ issue, but how the leaders contributed to the issue and were complicit.  

Leader qualities are essential since leaders are the voice of the organization’s culture and values. When there is misalignment, the consequences are significant, certainly for the organization’s performance, but also for employee well-being and psychological safety.

Take steps to ensure alignment and at least address if not prevent bad behaviors.  Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Foster qualities that align with the mission, culture and values.  Widely communicate the qualities, values, and norms. 
  • Ensure effective leader and employee development strategies, that include self-awareness and self-reflection techniques.
  • Partner with key professionals in your organization including wellness, safety, HR, other managers, and employees. 
  • Implement consequences for incivilities and bad behaviors. None should be ignored or tolerated no matter how successful the employee or leader is in meeting the business targets.
  • Identify and communicate behaviors expected for each value.
  • Complete regular pulse checks to ensure manager and employee fulfillment and to uncover as well as address any issues.
  • Review your performance evaluation process with the key partners.  Decide what to change and at the very least, include the qualities, values and actions/behaviors expected.


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