A disgusting, dangerous and wrong business practice – a look at Fernando Flores’ methods

I recently got an email from a reader of this blog asking if I’d ever heard of Fernando Flores. I hadn’t – but he supplied a link to this article in Fast Company, which chilled my blood when I read it.

The article opens with this:

Fernando Flores was Chile’s minister of finance — and, later, a political prisoner. Now he teaches companies how to use assessments and commitments to transform the way they do business. The outcome: executives who speak and act with intention.

That’s all well and good. But then comes this description from a session Flores runs with a management team from a global construction company:

The session has only started and already Flores has had enough. He lifts his 6-foot, 220-pound frame from his chair. Imagine a bear rising up on its hind legs: The men are simply not prepared for how big Flores is when he stands — or how fierce. He turns on Tomas, a relative newcomer to Flores’s sessions.

“Tomas,” Flores begins, “tell me: Why is change taking so long here?” Tomas responds: The group is resisting Flores’s approach. To Flores, Tomas’s answer sounds like projection. It is Tomas who is resisting change. Flores invites Tomas’s colleagues to “assess” Tomas. One executive leaps to the challenge. “Tomas, you are blind, egotistical, and inwardly focused,” he says. “I can’t challenge you without your getting defensive.”

The words leave Tomas stunned. “Tomas,” Flores says, “say, ‘Thank you for that assessment.’ ” The words are part of a script written on an easel next to Flores. Tomas tries to repeat them, but he stutters when he gets to the word “sincerity,” even though the rest of his English is nearly perfect. Flores prompts Tomas, “Follow the script, exactly as it is written”

“Tomas,” Flores says, “why this rebel-child attitude? Can’t you answer me?” Flores turns away in disgust. Another colleague uses the script to assess Tomas. “Tomas,” he begins, “you are a bureaucrat. You are married to rules, not to listening.” In fact, Tomas keeps his head down, scribbling notes, unable to look at his colleagues. Flores asks Tomas what he learned from this comment.

“That I have more work to do,” Tomas whispers.

Flores eyes the group warily. “I am using Tomas for one purpose,” he says, “to show you what transformation is not. To show you what it means to be weak and insincere.”

Yikes!

I don’t know what’s worse – the awful methods Flores employs; the fawning tone in the Fast Company article, which makes him sound like a corporate superhero swooping in to save business in trouble; or the fact that he charges companies millions of dollars for his assistance.

To me, this is one of the most disgusting business practices I’ve ever heard of. I’m all for honesty and openness but that is obviously NOT what Flores is preaching. As the first comment on the article says, his methods are sociopathic:

I have visited seminars sponsored by Flores, in Chile, and have known, rather well, several people who were “disciples” of Flores.

Listening to him he struck me as rude, manipulative, AND SOCIOPATHIC. I worked with one person who, presumably, was one of Flores main students, and the guy was, like Flores, rude, insensitive, overbearing, and most importantly ineffective. He actually ruined a business in which I was involved. His partners dumped him.

There are many things wrong with Flores’ methods – here are the top 5 reasons why I hate what he does.

1: It does NOT create commitment and open communication
Flores calls his approach commitment management. According to the Fast Company article, his aim is to teach managers:

to master “speech acts”: language rituals that build trust between colleagues and customers, word practices that open your eyes to new possibilities.

Riiiiiight!

There are proven ways of generating positive, constructive openness in groups – ways that encourage open feedback, receptive listening and mutual support and learning. What Flores does is pretty much the exact opposite.

2: It makes people unhappy and frustrated
I’ve seen the results of these methods myself. I once visited a customer site for a sales meeting – and during the meeting, while we were discussing something completely innocuous, one of the customers broke down crying. Turns out she’d recently attended a similar seminar where co-workers were encouraged to criticise each other harshly and the results had been devastating for her and the team.

3: All disagreement is labeled as weakness or obstruction
You can see for yourself what happens to Tomas above, when he shows the slighted sign of dissent from Flores’ abusive methods: He is ridiculed and made a target for further attention.

This is in fact a tactic used in many cults (e.g. Scientology) where all dissent is punished in similar ways.

If you have legitimate questions and concerns about the process you should be allowed to voice them, not automatically be labeled as “weak and insincere” as Tomas is.

4: It rewards the wrong people and the wrong behavior
Flores’ methods reward two kinds of people: Those who actively enjoy being jerks and those who are too weak to say no. That can’t possibly be good for an organization.

5: It doesn’t work!!!
And here’s the ironic part: It doesn’t even work! The reader who told me about Flores used to work at a company that used his services, and the result was internal warfare on a scale that made all their best people defect to their competitors. Essentially, it put the company in a weakened state, from which it has not yet recovered.

I’m not alone in being aghast at Fernando Flores and his methods. I told some other business bloggers I admire about him and here are some reactions.

Steve Roesler over at All Things Workplace says:

Buying into any activity that tears people down, demeans, and disrespects them in the name of “honesty” shows a lack of wisdom and discernment at best and, at worst, a willingness to trade off the health and well-being of employees for a promise of quick results. If you haven’t yet been exposed to these tactics masquerading as “development”, be alert. In difficult times humans are especially susceptible to promises of deliverance.

Here’s a quick and easy test.

Let’s say your mother decides to stop by and cook dinner for you and your spouse. It was made with love but really wasn’t all that tasty. So you show her how enlightened you are in order to create an even closer, more trusting relationship that will help you truly bond:

“Well, Mom, you have no skills…and you are fu_ _ed up when you leave here.”

I didn’t think you would.

Kareem Mayan adds:

What a joke. Telling people bluntly and rudely what you think about them is not a gift or an invention. It’s another fad preached by a “rockstar guru” that promises results to sub-par managers if you follow the One True Way.

If you want your co-workers to improve, honesty is important. But being an asshole has been proven to be an ineffective management strategy. So why even bother beating this drum? 21st century companies focus on outcomes, connections, people, and creativity.

Your take

What do you think of this? Have you ever been subject to something similar? What would you do if someone tried to treat you in this way? Write a comment!

Related posts

28 thoughts on “A disgusting, dangerous and wrong business practice – a look at Fernando Flores’ methods”

  1. Hi Alex,

    Flores really violates your deepest intuitions here! Interestingly, I wasn’t as provoked, so It might be interesting to offer my view:

    Judging only from the Fast Company article that you refer to, I don’t see a sociopath but a consultant offering a tough programme. Toughness can be a right or a wrong tool. But necessarily wrong? Insisting on always pleasant, always happy or always comfortable is closer to being necessarily wrong, I think.

    The keyword is perhaps ‘voluntary’? It’s not really clear from the article how voluntary this session is for the attendants, but they are the management team and they hired him. Group dynamics can be repressive regardless of whether they are positive or negative. It can be a real tyranny if the social norm is to be always positive or always negative.

    Flores is trying to revolutionize the way this management team communicates: He forces these people into very unpleasant debate and shows them that it’s possible. It reminds me of how I conquered my worst fear of water: I trained standing fully submerged with open eyes, facing my paralyzing fear of drowning and experiencing that it didn’t happen.

    I don’t believe that this a good tool for anything, but for some things.

    In this case we learn of a management team that has clearly lost its ability to believe in what it wants to achieve. And this is in fact what Flores wants to give them back.

    I think that, judging again strictly from the article, Flores tries to give the management team success, first by making the discourse between them free, then committing. After that, he facilitates audacious ambitions. Not a bad idea, actually!

    Perhaps I’m sidetracking, ’cause what makes it wrong in your eyes?

    1) He does not create open communication.
    Well I see that is exactly what he creates by removing fear of honesty. What makes you think it is counterproductive?

    2) People become unhappy and frustrated.
    In the article they actually become happy, and I believe that’s possible. His methods don’t seem to be suitable for anyone and any purpose, but if people are voluntarily participating they are not morally wrong.

    3) His methods are manipluating
    Could be true, but it’s not clear. You chose to quote only the humiliating part of Tomas’ experience, not the uplifting part where he experiences the breakthrough of overcoming the fear of social punishment. If this is really what happens, it’s a freedom revolution for the management team.

    4) He encourages unpleasant behaviour
    No, he encourages honesty by breaking with the present paradigme which seems to be ‘always comfortable’. I suppose you could revolutionize a really negative environment in the opposite way, by experiencing that you can survive eg shameless praise and hugs from a stranger!

    5) It doesn’t work
    You are being unfair! Someone you know heard from someone that Flores’ methods left some company in a worse state. I think we need more substance to deal with this point.

    I hope you made it this far, and I am looking forward to hearing your
    reaction. This could be a really really interesting debate!

    Kristian

  2. Hi Alex,

    Surprised by the vehemence of your response to this article. Flores comes across as bit of a jerk to be sure – I suspect the article is shows him through a sensationalist media lense and I’m surprised by how much you judge him without having done more research.

    I have trained with couple of senior students of Flores who show great care and respect in their work so that’s all In know about. The “speech acts” system he came up with is in my opinion fabulous as a transformational tool – both personally and organisationally – and forms the basis of much communication work that I do. It’s completely different from the (equally valid) style of communication you critique it with – really another world. Is Fernando nice? I don’t know. Is his work any good? Yes.

    All the best from Brighton,
    Mark

  3. I’ll like to know which are the companies that pays “millions of dollars for his assistance” I won’t work for them : )

  4. Mr Said, It was not exactly ” winning” in the 70s if you called concentration camps, and exile winning.

  5. Mr Alexander, with all due respect, you dont sound like a “happy” guy, and additionally you bad mouth the work of others based on very little information on an article. It sounded more that it is an excuse for you to expose your “values” for which you get paid, but then again, consultants must preach something unique.

  6. In the spirit of the Flores supporters here, let me be honest with all of you.

    You are the reason that business is a fucking cesspool of power mongers and sociopaths. You yourselves are likely sociopaths as well, or at least so near to being one as to make no discernible difference to non-professional eyes. The only real way to deal with people like you is to murder you brutally on public television with an axe as a lesson to those who come after.

    That is all. I hope you enjoyed the honesty, fuckers.

  7. Thanks for all the great comments people.

    Kristian: That’s a very measured and mature response and I admire that.

    I am not against processes that are tough or uncomfortable at all – they can be insanely useful. If you spend your career entirely inside your comfort zone, only doing things that are nice and pleasurable you limit yourself severely.

    However, my point is that the methods described here make people unhappy in the long term – and that’s bad.

    So I’m not attacking Flores’ methods for being tough but for being wrong.

    You make an excellent point on the voluntary nature of the process. However, it seems from the example that withdrawing from the process is not really an option.

    I think that what he creates in people is compliance – not commitment. They go along to get along.

    And on a deeper note: If you want to build trust, mutual respect and commitment in a group you can’t do it with a process that is disrespectful and negative.

    Mark: I kinda surprised myself too with my vehemence :o)

    I can’t speak for Flores’ disciples – they may have taken his principles and used them in positive, uplifting ways. As with anything else, it’s not the tool – it’s how you use it.

    Felipe: Really? Where is that?

    Lillian: Yeah, me too!

    Andrew: That’s probably too harsh.

    Peter and Curious: Yeah, I know – this isn’t like me. Normally I stay far away from issues that tick me off and focus on the positive but I honestly feel a deep need to stop methods like these. They hurt businesses and people.

    This post is only the second negative rant out of 1375 posts on the blog – that’s not too bad and I promise to be positive again for the next 5- or 600 posts :o)

    Michael: That’s not the way to do it either. Being unpleassant to a jerk still makes you unpleasant.

  8. Alex I’m definitely with you on this one, both in your original post, and in your response to the comments. It’s the use of language in the Fast Company article that got to me.

    Firstly, the article is written in a way that suggests the Flores approach is effective, perhaps even the right one. He may gain short-term success but there is little evidence about how his success is defined, and whether it really lasts.

    Secondly the language Flores himself uses, and presumably encourages others to use. For me, any management style that is based on aggression and intimidation, either in action or language, is flawed. Regardless of whether that aggression is condoned as plain-speaking. We can communicate plainly, effectively and powerfully, without the need for intimidation.

    Thirdly, I find it very odd that the author of the article seems to laud the use of scripts in the Flores method. It seems he is encouraging interaction based on his own narrowly defined language. If people are only allowed to respond according to (his) scripts, eventually they will only be allowed to think in his terms, rather than independently. This form of management “newspeak” would have impressed Orwell himself. Or, as you rightly say, any cult leader past or present.

    Finally, I find it very unsettling that the article seems to compare Flores with Drucker. Time will tell whether there is even the remotest reason for comparison. They do seem to share one thing in common, strengths-based management However, they clearly interpret this in diametrically opposed ways. Drucker believed the best way to manage was to bring out the best in people, especially in the strengths they had. Flores seems to be more interested in strength as a control mechanism. Strength as it relates to those with the power, rather than the strengths we each have as individuals.

    Over the years I’ve worked with and for managers who would no doubt endorse the Flores method. They didn’t get anywhere near the best from me, or from others in their charge. On each occasion I encountered this I became so frustrated at not achieving my potential at work that I couldn’t wait to leave. That wasn’t success, it was waste. As Drucker himself said:

    “Any organisation develops people; it either forms them or deforms them.”

    The Flores method may appear to get results, but I’m convinced most people would feel deformed if exposed to them, not formed.

  9. Phil and Alex (and anyone else interested),

    Let’s dig a little more into this:

    Phil, you made the critique of Flores more concrete by closing in on what characterizes Flores’ methods:

    1) The use of aggression and intimidation is wrong.
    Let’s not discuss the obvious: Noone should accept aggression and intimidation as an everyday tool used by management.
    But aggression and intimidation can be used in a training environment with the participants’ informed consent. I don’t know where the line should be drawn, but sleep deprivation, hunger, pain and other very unpleasant things are core elements of elite training for sportsmen and soldiers. Why not use social punishment as a training tool for top managers? The utility is obvious (to me).

    Flores is teaching these people how to say what they mean and mean what they say. We don’t know from the article, but nothing indicates that he encourages people to intimidate each other once training is done. On the contrary he seems to want people to first and foremost be honest, which is value-neutral.

    2) The use of scripts in training is wrong
    Again, that depends on what the training must achieve. It would seem that Flores wants to give the management team a certain experience. So far that could be called manipulatory, but then we slide down a slippery slope where all training becomes manipulation. A team of top managers should be able to loose the scripts and return to reality once the training is over.

    I am not a Flores fan, I just reacted on the repulsion that many readers of the article seem to experience. The article made me curious to learn more, to see if Flores might just be on the right track to evict bullshit from management discourse.

    Enjoy your weekends!

  10. Interesting Kristian – now I think we’re getting down to basic principles on your point #1.

    Here’s what I think: In any training you learn the content of the training but you also learn from the process. If those two are congruent all is good.

    If the content says one thing but the process says something else I believe (with no evidence to back it up but my personal experience) that people go mostly by the process.

    It’s a “they do what you do, not what you say” thing.

    So if Flores’ words say “openness, respect and commitment” but his methods are all about aggression and intimidation – then participants learn aggression and intimidation.

    In my opinion there is no room ever in business training for this kind of behaviour, and in fact, I would note that the military doesn’t even use it much any more!

    As for scripts (point #2) – I actually believe they can be useful.

    What do you think?

  11. MichaelWH – Perfect response. I worked in manufacturing for 12 years and found it to be as you have assessed business – full of mean, nasty SOBs who deserve to work in the toxic work environments they created.

    Flores’ methods are sick, period. Tearing people down in front of others. This flies in the face of respect for others as well as fundamental communication principles as assertiveness. Flores is espousing aggressiveness, which is the dysfunctional “I win – you lose.” Instead of the more constructive “Win – Win.”

    Also, isn’t it a fundamental to praise in public and criticize in private? Where did common sense and decency ever go? Are we becoming like these idiotic reality TV shows like Hell’s Kitchen and The Apprentice? We reap as we sow. We sow mean-spirited, disrespectful, dysfunctional work environments, then we sow toxicity in the workplace.

  12. Sure, Flores is a senator, and as far as I know he hasn’t given a seminar in many years. Sometimes he gives talks at Universities.

    The article sure doesn’t reflect what I’ve seen (I’ve only attended one seminar, but its much more than you who attended zero).

    The article in Fast Company is from 2007 and sure Harriet didn’t have a clue

    You don’t have to worry, though… Flores is not giving seminars so you don’t need to badmouth your competition

    If you REALLY want to know what he thinks try reading his blog at http://www.fernandoflores.cl/

    regards from Chile

  13. I found this article through Steve Roesler’s post and stated there that I couldn’t think of a faster way to get me looking for a new job than my manager talking like that to me with upper level backing.

    After reading some of the comments I wanted to add to that. If it’s only done in a training setting…. Well, I understand why a tear down/build up bootcamp can be a useful thing, despite the temporary unpleasantness. Especially if you feel that is where you need personal improvement and you opt-in with full knowledge of what is going to happen to you.

    It is not a method that I can imagine subjecting myself to for anything less than life or death. There are other paths to self-realization and success. And if my company required me to go to that training or advised my manager to use that approach in “coaching” me then I’m right back at the looking for another job.

  14. Blaine: Thanks for bringing up the “Praise in public, criticize in private” rule – that’s how I’ve always seen it.

    Felipe: Thanks – that’s good to know.

    Carlos: I wish I could read his blog but my Spanish ain’t so hot…

    I try to make it a rule never to speak badly of others but in this case I felt that these methods are so harmful to people that they must be stopped and I’m glad to hear that Flores is no longer out there doing this.

    Beth: I saw your comment on Steve’s blog and agree completely.

    And while I know a lot of people believe in training that tears people down first to build them up later I have a fundamental distrust of it. I remain convinced that they do people and organizations more harm than good. And sometimes the harm is deep and lasting.

  15. Wow. Being subjected to ridicule of that nature is totally un-called for. I am amazed that companies pay for that type of advice/direction! I work in a very creative, yet sometimes stressful environment where positive reinforcement is always appreciated. I would never want to be forced to put down my colleagues.

  16. I think that both the original article about Flores and this response are too extreme. I agree with the fact that Flores’s method was very negative, and could definitely be damaging to many companies. However, in the example used in the article, it proved to be a useful way of improving communications. Flores’s techniques could therefore be useful in certain situations, and it seems like Tomas benefitted. This isn’t to say that it would be useful to everyone, but if your company is losing tens of millions of dollars, something more extreme probably does need to be done.

  17. Vanlocator, what I’m hearing in your response is the nigh-omnipresent logical failure. “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore it must be done.”

    “ZOMG! OUR COMPANY IS LOSING TENS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS!”

    “OH LOOK! THIS TOTAL SOCIOPATH SAYS THAT BY ABUSING EACH OTHER WITH STOCK PHRASES WE CAN TURN OURSELVES AROUND!”

    “RIGHT! LET’S DO IT!”

  18. I think Kiz has hit the nail on the head with that summary. The Flores approach may have some uses in some situations (voluntary being the key word), but in my opinion it will both legitimize the activities, and run the risk that they will become embedded in organizational culture.

    The “trickle down” effect, whether deliberate or inadvertent, would be both inevitable and harmful. I could easily see middle or junior managers assuming the technique was appropriate at their levels and mis-applying it. Whatever the alleged benefits of this approach, I just think there are better, more positive ways to achieve them.

    And as for wanting your business to be run like the military, I think this quote from one of our pages sums that up nicely:

    “Peter Drucker tells a story worth including here. He once asked the former head of a very large, world wide organisation:
    ‘What do you look for in placing the right people into the right places in an organisation?’ The old man, who had been famous for doing just that replied: ‘I always ask myself, would I want one of my sons to work under that person?’

    Well I wouldnt!
    http://www.the-happy-manager.com/good-manager.html
    Phil

  19. To all the people dumping on Alex, I fucking hated Flores before I even finished the blockquote. Alex’s comments, if anything, were too diplomatic. All you need to know about Flores, you can find out just by reading his own words in the blockquote.

    He should be beaten within an inch of his life by someone at the receiving end of that treatment, and spend six months in physical therapy recovering before he can walk again. I guarantee he’d curl up in a fetal position and wet himself the next time he even thought of treating someone like that.

    I’ve had some bosses who acted like that, and they’re the kind of people who make me cheer for news stories about workplace shootings on my worse days. I worked for one woman (a ward supervisor at a VA hospital) who screamed at people until she was black in the face, just for the sheer joy of knowing she could reduce them to tears. When she quit and the news came back that she’d been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, you should have heard the comments. The mildest was “what goes around, comes around.” The harshest: “I hope before the end comes that fucking cunt is rolling back and forth in agony, drowning in her own body fluids.” Never in my life have I heard such expression of utter loathing for a human being. I myself periodically think of hunting down her grave just to spit on it.

    But I suspect that if I’d been among those exposed to Flores, they’d have topped my VA coworkers.

    What a piece of human garbage.

  20. I will add a comment with a little more edge to it than before and make this my final whimper in this case:

    The majority of comments above relate to how the writer would not like to be addressed they way Flores addresses mr. Tomas in the Fast Company Article.

    That is not relevant for a judgment of whether Flores’ methods are right, relevant or effective.

    Quite the contrary, perhaps: What if Flores has identified that the core of underperformance in many companies is that people avoid unpleasant interpersonal situations that they don’t like?

    I know that you know that we will all go very far to avoid an unpleasant situation. Many of us will tell lies to avoid a confrontational conversation.

    I am now only speculating of course, but I am holding out the possibility that Flores might not be employing a method worthy of the disgust that has been proven in the comments above.

    Breaking down is inherent in the concept of breaking with something, so the concept of tearing down to build new is unavoidable in any transformation. It’s not wrong per se.

    If you speculate that Flores is breaking down something in the people who are working with him in the Fast Company article, then I speculate that he is only helping these people, with informed consent, to break down some habit of theirs, perhaps the habit of creeping away from confrontational discourse.

    Again this as most everything else in this thread is just guesswork, because we did not hear how Flores sold or explained his work to the management team in the article. He might be just another phony one-man-band like so many hypnosis-based profiteers out there, such as nlp or est as one commenter suggested.

    Or he might just be walking his talk, explaining thoroughly why he does what he does and what good it is supposed to do, in such a way that it made sense to the albeit desperate team of managers. If he did not do the latter, I think the management team in the article were well on their way to closing their company.

  21. Kristian: I think if you asked most people who work for a living, most of them would put the avoidance of confrontation pretty low on their list of problems where they work. Far, far more of them would complain that they are constantly subjected to demeaning, dehumanizing, brutalizing treatment, treated as means to an end–treated like shit.

    It’s telling that the technique of “tearing down” as a step in personal transformation has been a common technique, historically, when individuals were broken down and transformed in the interests of authoritarian organizations. That was the technique used to strip SS trainees of their humanity and transform them into obedient killing machines. That was the technique used in Chinese “self-criticism” meetings and POW camps, and in milder form in Marine boot camp. That was the technique used to tear Winston Smith’s psyche down to its component atoms in the Ministry of Love and recreate him as an entirely different person who loved Big Brother. Any organization whose survival depends on “tearing down” people and “transforming” them is an organization that deserves to die–and then to have the ground it formerly occupied sown with salt.

  22. Wait a minute! You neglected to finish the session and show the final outcome for Thomas and his fellow managers which was brilliant.

    Apparently you have never seen a confrontation of your own beliefs or moods as appropriate to moving you forward.

    Watch Flores carefully my friend. I’m not a desciple, but I can tell you from reading his methodology and using his coaching methods, even Blanchard is proud. Bottom line = no risk, no reward.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>