The Death Lizards Take Over at JCPenney

The Death Lizards are back — those soul-sucking 6-Sigmatized cyborgs from the Consultocracy who skip around corporate America turning decent, if middling, workplaces into something out of a hungover Dante dream.

Ron Johnson was named CEO of venerable JCPenney in 2011 with orders to revitalize the aging middlebrow retailer. Fair enough, it could use a jolt. He was fresh from a nice run at Apple where he turned its branded stores into go-to places for product and information. The Apple store near me in Atlanta is like a cool, crowded nightclub (except one full of geeks instead of bottles and models).

One problem. JCPenney ain’t Apple.

This little fact seems to have escaped Johnson and his lizardy team. Of course, they weren’t helped by a team of MBAs from one of the big consulting firms that get the details but miss the big picture. JCPenney ain’t Apple. It is mom and apple pie, not double decaf and yoga. Heartland square, not coastal hip.

The new team apparently doesn’t care much for the traditions and culture of JCPenney. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Johnson’s right-hand man called the company “pathetic.” Nicely played.

What other tricks have this bunch pulled out of their management trick bag? Here is how Business Insider describes it in a recent article.

“There’s widespread anxiety, fear, distrust and resistance to CEO Ron Johnson within the company, according to several JCPenney executives … Rumors have spun out of control, even among the executives at headquarters, and they have trickled down to the front-line workers in stores … ‘Everyone is afraid for their jobs,’ explained an exec who had also worked under the previous regime. ‘Much time is wasted on discussing, so not a lot of work gets done.'”

I have never understood the compulsion of so many executives, particularly these guys who parachute into companies with visions of quick multimillion-dollar paydays, to be so atavistically ignorant of the human component of organizational health. Genghis Khan-style leadership is so Middle Ages, guys. Raping and pillaging doesn’t motivate like it used to. Modern humans perform at their best when their leaders recognize and amplify their strengths and values, not call them “pathetic” in the press. Business Insider elaborates:

“As a result, employees experience constant uncertainty. Then comes the angst and fear. They worry about the company’s health, they worry about their colleagues and they worry about whether their bosses are doing the right things.”

Maybe all of this is worth it if it turns the company around, right? Securing jobs for the future and the health of the retirement plans. Providing sound returns to investors.

Oops, not so fast. Profits have plummeted and the stock is down almost 50 percent since Johnson and his team took over. They may not be long for this gig.

In closing, let me be fair. I have not met Johnson or any member of his team, and it is possible they are getting a bad rap. It can happen, I know. Also, there are times in every company’s life where tough decisions on layoffs and benefit reductions must be made – I have done so myself in an executive role. If Johnson cares to respond, I will gladly give him space in Psychology at Work to do so.

But until then, I’m buying my suits at Sears.