Looking for a good boss

Dear colleagues,

Imagine you had a boss who said to you, "If you see me behaving badly, tell me about it and I'll give you $20" and then actually seemed pleased about receiving feedback and forking out the $20? This sort of boss is likely to be good - and getting better.

Research shows that most bosses have no idea how they are perceived: they think they are doing a good job and that their subordinates approve of their behaviour. But workers are usually afraid to confront their bosses with criticisms, fearing reprisals, so bosses seldom receive feedback on how to improve.

Robert I. Sutton knows a lot about bad bosses. He wrote the bestselling book The No Asshole Rule, about objectionable behaviour in the workplace, and received extensive correspondence subsequently, thereby learning even more about poor leadership. He subsequently decided to look at the things that go into making a good boss, producing the book Good Boss, Bad Boss.

Sutton's books are a joy to read, being filled with informative stories, drawing on the latest research and giving highly practical advice. Anyone can learn from Good Boss, Bad Boss - especially bosses. Sutton is mainly interested in management in US corporations, where bosses have considerable power over workers, including to fire them. Nevertheless, there are insights aplenty for any academic, including ideas that can be used by teachers.

Sutton covers a large number of ideas. Conveniently, at the end of each chapter he provides a summary of key points, for example "The 12 commandments of bosses' dirty work" (dirty work includes delivering bad news, for example when someone loses their job). The quotes below give a flavour of the book.

There's one important limitation in focusing on good and bad bosses: it assumes the existence of organisational hierarchy. Changing the structure and operation of an organisation, for example with autonomous work groups, rotating leadership and worker self-management, is a different option, but is not on the agenda in most US corporations. Yet even for those seeking to move beyond traditional hierarchical systems, it is worth learning about how to be a better boss.

5 December 2012

Thanks to Anneleis Humphries and Nicola Marks for helpful comments on a draft.


Robert I. Sutton, Good boss, bad boss: how to be the best ... and learn from the worst (New York: Business Plus, 2010, 2012)

"Effective bosses know it is sometimes best to leave their people alone. They realize that keeping a close eye on people often either has no effect on performance or undermines it - in contrast to micromanagers, who believe their relentless attention and advice bolsters performance." (p. 22)

"Beware if you fancy yourself as the rare boss who sees yourself as others do. Chances are you're deluding yourself. Most people believe that they make more accurate self-assessments than peers. Unfortunately, such confidence is often just another form of self-aggrandizement. Despite our beliefs to the contrary, most of us suffer the same distorted self-assessments as our colleagues. Worse yet, the most deeply incompetent people suffer from the most inflated assessments of their own abilities and performance." (p. 40)

"When experiments at Stanford and Caltech were rigged so it was impossible for leaders to influence team performance, members still gave the appointed 'leader' most of the credit and blame. Members of poorly performing teams were even willing to spend their own money to get rid of their 'lousy' (if irrelevant) leaders." (p. 49)

"Ask your people what they need to succeed and then try to give it to them. Obvious, isn't it? It is also remarkably rare." (p. 69)

"Psychological safety is the key to creating a workplace where people can be confident enough to act without undue fear of being ridiculed, punished, or fired - and be humble enough to openly doubt what is believed and done. As Amy Edmondson's research shows, psychological safety emerges when those in power persistently praise, reward, and promote people who have the courage to act, talk about their doubts, successes, and failures, and work doggedly to do things better the next time." (p. 74)

"Safety also means that you, as a boss, may end up encouraging people to do things that annoy you." (p. 76)

"... when people don't feel safe - let alone obligated - to point out concerns, jump in, and correct their boss's mistakes, then learning and error correction grind to a halt." (pp. 76-77)

"Wise bosses don't just encourage followers to reveal bad news. They dig for evidence that clashes with their presumptions." (p. 82)

"Unfortunately, too many bosses have such blind faith in solo superstars and unbridled competition that they hire egomaniacs and install pay and promotion systems that reward selfish creeps who don't give a damn about their colleagues. Or, even worse, they shower kudos and cash on credit hogs and backstabbers who get ahead by knocking others down." (p. 103)

"... accentuating the positive isn't enough. The best bosses do more than charge up people, and recruit and breed energizers. They eliminate the negative, because even a few bad apples and destructive acts can undermine many good people and constructive acts." (p. 111)

"When bosses make concerted efforts to understand what it feels like to be a customer, it makes gaps between knowledge and action vivid and helps them identify more effective repairs." (p. 137)

"Authentic experts have no incompetence to mask but must beware of 'the curse of knowledge': The more people know about something, the harder it is for them to package explanations and instructions in ways that others can comprehend. Stanford's Pamela Hinds, for example, showed that people with the greatest expertise at operating a cell phone did the worst job of teaching novices to operate the phone." (pp. 141-142)

"Ask yourself - and your people - if you have practices that 'everyone else' uses, but are a waste of time or downright destructive. What about your performance evaluations? People who give and receive them usually hate the process. They are usually done so badly that they do more harm than good. Would you be better off not doing them at all - or at least cutting 75 percent of the questions on your form?" (pp. 152-153)

"... a big part of the [boss's] job is shielding followers from unnecessary and destructive worries, hassles, procedures, indignities, and intruders and idiots of every stripe." (p. 157)

"The best bosses find the sweet spot between acting like spineless wimps who always do just as they are told (no matter how absurd) versus insubordinate rabble-rousers who challenge and ignore every order and standard operating procedure. Good bosses try to cooperate with superiors and do what is best for their organizations, but they realize that defiance can be required to protect their people and themselves - and sometimes is even ultimately appreciated by superiors." (pp. 166-167)

"The worst bosses not only make followers feel vulnerable and weak during hard times, they also demean, humiliate, and piss them off." (p. 191)

"... there are plenty of empathetic and civilized bosses. But there is strong evidence that power turns people into insensitive jerks who are oblivious to subordinates' needs and actions. There is also convincing evidence that subordinates are hypervigilant about superiors' moves and often assume the worst about their intentions. This toxic tandem means that bosses are often oblivious to the moves they make that piss off and hurt followers." (p. 221)

"... as a boss, you need trusted advisors, mentors, and followers who feel safe telling you when you've been a schmuck." (p. 223)

"Developing and sustaining self-awareness ought to be at the top of the list for every boss. David Dunning, of Cornell University, shows that a hallmark of poor performers is a lack of self-awareness; they consistently overestimate their skills in just about any task that requires intellectual and social skills, such as debating, having a sense of humor, or interviewing others. In contrast, Dunning finds that self-awareness is a hallmark of the best performers - they are especially cognizant of their strengths and weaknesses, and fret about overcoming pitfalls that can undermine their performance." (p. 244)

[from the 2012 epilogue] "Assume you are clueless, insensitive, and selfish - especially if you wield a lot of power or your people are performing especially well. Good Boss, Bad Boss presents evidence that we humans are often blind to our weaknesses and giving people power amplifies this tendency: we become more focused on our own needs and wants, less focused on others, and act like the rules apply to others and not to us. Alas, recent developments suggest that staying in tune with the people you oversee is even more difficult than this books suggests." (p. 255)

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