Good Bosses Assume They Are Clueless

February 29, 2012

Bob Sutton’s book Good Boss, Bad Boss, is out in paperback. If you don’t own the book yet, now would be a great time to buy it and start chewing on Bob’s evidence-based advice. I reviewed the book here back in July of 2010, and Bob was gracious enough to answer a few questions I had about the book in a separate post in September of 2010. Bob is one of my favorite management thinkers, and I highly recommend any of his books.

The paperback edition contains a new chapter at the end, an epilogue with nine lessons Bob has learned over the years about good and bad bosses. The first of these nine lessons is “Assume you are clueless, insensitive, and selfish – especially if you wield a lot of power or your people are performing especially well” (p. 255). Bob goes on to say “we as 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.” (p.255).

When I was a young manager, I was very aggressive. I can vividly recall one meeting where I read the riot act to a manager who worked for me while my supervisor observed. My subordinate manager left the meeting in tears, and my boss was actually amused at how cold and intimidating I had been. He should have grabbed me by the collar and told me in no uncertain terms never to pull that shit again. A few years after that meeting I realized what an asshole I had been and to this day I am ashamed of how I treated that person. I’m still trying to learn a communication style that is less aggressive and more assertive.

Working with insensitive, egocentric jerks sucks. Working for them is even worse. I think a lot of this bad behavior can be explained by narcissistic tendencies, but I’m also convinced that some people exhibit “learned cluelessness”. When we abdicate our responsibility to confront bad behavior in others, we essentially teach them that treating people poorly is acceptable. I prefer to ask someone “what is it you really want, and how can I help you get it?” but if they consistently choose to be either dishonest or manipulative, I think “kiss my ass” becomes justified.

Confronting the chronically ignorant person is no fun, and it often does not work; however, we are responsible for our own behavior, not how others respond to our behavior. Never blame others without committing yourself to become part of the solution.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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About the Author:

Comments (6)

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  1. mick says:

    This book is wonderful everything that i just read about is so very true.right now i am experiencing that type of boss at my job.I am gonna read this book hopefully my boss will see it and read it she need to really learn for it.i have been working for a long time at my job i went through different boss but i never have a problem until this one take over our company.Everything is just not fair and right at my job and it making it hard on us to work in that kind of envirnment.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Mick. Hope you enjoy the book and hope it can help your situation in some way. thanks for sharing! Bret

  2. Greg Blencoe says:


    Thanks for the book recommendation. It sounds very interesting.

    Regarding being clueless, it really is amazing how we mostly tend to see things from our own perspective. Many times in my life, I’ve been amazed at how differently another person can see the exact same situation.

    And it’s not that I was right or wrong or they were right or wrong. We both just saw things from a different perspective.

    Therefore, it seems like leaders really have to make a conscious effort to communicate and listen a lot in order to try to understand things from the other person’s perpective. And then they have to have a desire to work the issues out with the other person.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    We all have perception biases, Greg. I think if someone assumes the responsibility to lead, they should make even more of an effort to be aware of them, as you point out. Thanks for sharing. Bret

  3. When I read the title of the post, I had a very different interpretation of cluelessness – as in someone that pretends they “don’t have a knowing” so that they can be curious about the perceptions of others. Hmmm! You meant exactly the opposite! This is what lends the air of adventure to communication – You never know how others are going to interpret what you just said! That confusion out of the way – I agree that as a leader you have to be clear about your intention and be sensitive to unintentional miscommunication!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Pegotty. I like your interpretation better. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Bret