I’m honored and thrilled that Bob Sutton took time from his crazy schedule to answer a few of my questions about his new book, “Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn From the Worst.“ If you follow my blog, you know that Bob Sutton is one of my favorite business book authors. Bob translates high quality research into practical management advice better than anyone I know. Bob’s books and his website are both recommended reading for every MBA class I teach. Bob shared some great insight in this interview – please take the time to read it and share your comments below!
1. What kind of folks do you hope read your new book and why?
The book is meant for anyone who is a boss or wants to be a boss. And there are A LOT of bosses out there. Department of Labor statistics reveal there are at least 20 million working Americans who have one or more subordinates. And as my wife, Marina, puts it, is also aimed at anyone who wants to know what a good boss “looks like,” including people who are looking for a new job (which nearly always comes with one or more new bosses) or people who advise bosses.
Why do I hope they read Good Boss, Bad Boss? Certainly, I hope they find the specific evidence-based tips to be useful. But I have one overarching goal that has become even more clear to me since the book came out, and I suppose is something I have been focused on since my last book, The No Asshole Rule: We, as individuals and as a society, ought to define good bosses as both those who are able to spur their people to high levels of performance and who treat them with dignity and respect day after day. Both this book and the last focus on the reasons that it is especially destructive to tolerate or glorify demeaning and disrespectful bosses who drive their people to high levels of performance. As I have consistently said, if you are the kind of boss who treats people like dirt, but still drives your people to make a lot of money or win a lot of games, you are still a loser as a human-being. And indeed, if we look at the evidence (especially some nice longitudinal studies done in Europe, such bosses do tremendous damage to their people’s well-being (nearly doubling the rates of heart attacks in one especially careful study).
Also, Good Boss, Bad Boss has a message that, in retrospect, I should have emphasized even more strongly: bosses who are humane and civilized but otherwise incompetent are as bad – and perhaps even worse – than “competent jerks.” They don’t develop their people’s skills and can make people feel as if their work lives are futile from a self-efficacy point of view. And they can be very emotionally tough to get rid of – I was recently talking to board member of a start-up who was telling how they kept putting off firing the incompetent CEO because he was such a nice job that they kept putting off the dirty work. In short, my hope is that in some small way, that the model of a good boss we strive for embraces both performance and humanity more explicity.
2. Is every boss on a continuum somewhere between bad and good, or are there two factors at work, such that everyone has both a degree of good and bad boss in them?
Well, you caught me with this question. I hope that my “good” and “bad” distinction is useful and helps people think, but it is also a rather gross oversimplification. As one boss, put it to me, every leader has some mix of angel and devil. Just like other human beings, bosses have weaknesses, make mistakes, and lose control. I guess, if I were to step back and think about it, the worst bosses are those who are unable or unwilling to learn, who have what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed” mindset. And the bosses I have the most hope and respect for – even if they are doing a pretty crummy job right now – are those who constantly try to hone their skills, acknowledge and learn from their mistakes, and who accept responsibility for finding ways to offset their weaknesses. These are the ones that Dweck says have a learning mindset.
To this point, I gave a talk last week at a renowned creative organization (I am not sure I can name them, so I am being a little coy here), and they described the “journey” of one of their senior executives who is now leading the company. He led one large and very visible project that was financially successful, but he alienated many of his people and drove a few of the best from the company. But (with help from other executives) he realized that he had “people” or “humanity” problems with his leadership style, and one of the reasons he was promoted to head the organization was that he had changed his style so much… something he apparently acknowledged at closing party for a big project he led. He told the group that he had learned that it was his job to take the blame when things go wrong and to give others credit when things go right – indeed, this is an evidence-based approach as I show in Chapter 2 of the book. I like that story because it shows the power of the learning mindset.
3. Of all your suggestions on how to be a good boss, the one I struggled the most with was the first one – take control. Is it really possible to “trick” others that you are in control? What conditions might cause the illusion of control to be ineffective or even backfire?
Bret, I struggled with this too. In fact, if you look at the table that summarizes these tricks I warn “Learn to be assertive enough. Don’t become an overbearing asshole when you use these strategies.” I guess there is sometimes a fine line between what is “faking it” versus what means a skilled leader uses to convince others that he or she is in charge. There is pretty strong evidence that when we BELIEVE our leaders are in charge, we do better work and they have a better chance of keeping their jobs and being admired by others. That list was meant to show well-meaning leaders the evidence-based moves that help convince others they are in charge so they can get things done. So, in the case of one leader I worked with a bit who was well-liked but was not instilling enough confidence, it was useful for him to learn things like he should go to the head of the room and stand-up, to battle back when others interrupt him too much, that going through a process of grabbing some power and then giving it away (he did this by taking a large high status for awhile and then, as he saw how crowded people were, he had it turned into a conference room and took a smaller office). On one level, these are “tricks,” but on another level, by learning about the kinds of things that were seen by his people as evidence that he was “finally stepping-up and taking charge” made him a more effective leader.
When does that backfire? It backfires especially badly when a boss becomes so confident or pig-headed that he or she feels superior to everyone else – the smartest person in the room, who doesn’t need to do things like listen to people, like allow and encourage them to question his or judgment, and to admit and learn from setbacks and failure. Note this is delicate balance that I talk about a lot in Chapter 3 on wisdom. More broadly, the best bosses constantly do a balancing act here – acting confident but not really sure (see this post at HBR). I think of three bosses I’ve met who are especially adept at his, David Kelley of IDEO, Brad Bird at Pixar, and AG Lafley at Procter & Gamble. In fact, I seriously considered naming the book “Top Dog On A Tightrope (this was Marc Hershon’s idea, a guy who, among other things, names things for a living – he named the Blackberry and the Swiffer).
4. What’s the most important point you make in the book that you hope your readers will remember their entire career as a boss?
Good question. My main message is that when you wield power over others, your success, their success, and their well-being depends on being in tune with them, on understanding what it feels like to work for you. BUT, as research on power poisoning shows (see this scary article by psychologist Dacher Keltner), the very fact that you are a boss places you are greater risk than other human beings of turning selfish, becoming oblivious to the actions and needs of others, and acting like the rules don’t apply to you. Every boss is at risk of becoming incompetent in these ways. The best realize it and battle it successfully. The worst fall victim to power poisoning and refuse to recognize or accept responsibility for their vile ways.