Book Review: Good Boss, Bad Boss

October 15, 2010

Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best... and Learn from the WorstWhat does it take to be a good boss? What are the behaviors and actions that you should strive to eliminate from your repertoire? The answers to these questions are in Bob Sutton’s latest book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst.

I had exchanged a couple of quick e-mails with Bob about getting a galley (advance copy) to do a review a little earlier than this, but alas, it didn’t arrive in the mail. This didn’t prevent me from reading the book, it only delayed me. I was motivated enough to read this book that I made it the FIRST book to purchase and read on my newly acquired Kindle.

I wasn’t disappointed. This book is a GREAT read! There is a wealth of research put forth that is pertinent to us managers, and there are even some nuggets that non-managers can appreciate.

Being a Jerk...
Bob Sutton notes early on that, “The best bosses balance performance and humanity, getting things done in ways that enhance rather than destroy dignity and pride.”

Not that bosses are deliberately seeking to be jerks. As Bob says, “I’ve never met a boss who wants to leave people feeling demeaned, disrespected, and de-energized.” So, if no sets out to be jerk, how does it happen?

Here’s one way: Bob cites surveys by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath reveal that almost 50 percent of workers claim they don’t have enough time to be civil on their jobs. (A consequence of doing a lot more with a lot less, no doubt.)

Bob reinforces this by relating a classic experiment that demonstrates how time pressure undermines sensitivity and humanity with what he calls “splendid irony.”

“In 1973, psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson recruited students at the Princeton Theological Seminary to give a brief talk on the Good Samaritan, a parable from the New Testament about the virtues of helping those in need. After getting the assignment, the seminary students walked outside through an alley to get to the building where their talk was scheduled. In the alley, they encountered a person (a shill planted by the researchers) sitting slumped with his head down and eyes shut, who was coughing and groaning. To top it off, it was freezing, as the research was done during an unusually cold December in New Jersey. The researchers told some of the seminary students they didn’t need to hurry, some to hurry, and some to rush over immediately because they were already late. These differences in time pressure had a huge impact: 63 percent of those in no hurry stopped to help, 45 percent in a bit of a hurry helped, and only 10 percent of those in a big hurry helped – passing just inches from someone apparently in dire need as they rushed to talk about the virtues of Good Samaritans.”

Time pressure isn’t the only driver. Bob notes that performance pressure can be intense, and that many bosses “…work in extremely competitive industries and face one tight deadline after another. Most bosses are praised, feel proud, and enjoy handsome incentives when their teams and organizations succeed – and many are blamed, feel shame, and lose income, and sometimes are canned when their followers fail.”

Tying all of this together, Bob makes a valid point about the nature of the job: “As I’ve said, it is almost as if the job was designed to turn occupants into assholes. It is difficult, arguably impossible, to be a boss (or any human being) without being a temporary asshole now and then.”

Agreed! And hopefully I’ve been viewed as temporary asshole having a bad day now and then and not a full-time one…

What does Bob recommend so that you avoid these problems? First, whenever the heat is on, keep reminding yourself and others of the big picture, to take a long-term time perspective. And if you can’t do it, turn to someone that you can trust to remind you when the pressure is intensifying and/or when you have what appears to be a blind spot.

Rigorously prioritizing your work is another mechanism. As Bob points out, “Most bosses are expected to do so many things that it is often impossible to perform each chore perfectly – or even very well. Good bosses focus their attention, and their people’s efforts, on the small number of things that matter most. The best bosses learn when they can and should ignore the least important demands from others.”

And before everyone starts thinking that THEIR boss is clearly a full-time jerk, let me quote an interesting observation Bob has in the book: “…just as 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.”

A manager’s job is a perilous one. One missed “good morning” or a wrong look on your face at the wrong time can become a major let-down for someone. Please, don’t assume worst! As Bob says, “Every boss is prone to bouts of cluelessness and forgetting how closely followers track every little things they do.”

His advice – on the surface – clashes with traditional advice: “You’ve got to think and act as if it is all about you. Your success depends on being fixated on yourself.” Meaning that we should all pay attention to people’s reactions and how they perceive us and not being self-absorbed.

These days, we all have a lot going on, and as good bosses we need to protect our people from distractions – including management-introduced distractions Bob calls Participation Traps.

The first trap is creating unnecessary interference and distractions. Bosses who ask for too much input and assistance make it tough for people to concentrate. The second trap is that just because people can perform a job well doesn’t mean they ought to help manage it. Asking employees to help bosses with their management chores is misguided when employees lack skill, interest, or time.

“The third trap is most aggravating. I call it sham participation. It happens when the boss asks people to devote massive effort to help with some decision – serving on time-consuming committees, interviewing experts, preparing reports, and so on. But the boss knows from the outset that underlings will have no influence.

“The best bosses let the workers do their work. They protect people from red tape, meddlesome executives, nosy visitors, unnecessary meetings, and a host of other insults, intrusions and time wasters. The main test here is whether or not followers believe their boss has got their backs.”

Another trap deals with bosses who don’t pay attention to the team dynamics and reward people who actually drag the organization down. Bob observes, “Unfortunately, too many bosses have such blind faith in solo superstars and unbridled competition that they hire huge 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.

“When I looked more closely at places where people were cooperative and unselfish, I saw that although their reward systems varied wildly, they all applied something like the GE definition of a superstar, promoting innovation and effectiveness through ‘the power of two performances’: individual contributions on their own jobs and collaboration on and across teams.”

Dealing with Failure
Things don’t always go according to plan, do they? We are all faced with failure, and sometimes even “failing” can be a question of degree. Bob Sutton and Jeff Pfeffer argue there are three kinds of reactions to failure:
  1. Blame, humiliate, and perhaps expel the culprit. This is the “do it right the first time or don’t do it” mentality.
  2. “Forgive and forget,” which is what benevolent but incompetent bosses do.
  3. “Forgive and remember,” which use failure as an opportunity for learning rather than finger pointing.
The best, naturally, use option #3 and move forward, keeping a positive, forward-thinking demeanor.

The Power of Positive Thinking
Bob cites research on how expressing confidence that good things will happen to your people can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, talking about a study of drill instructors at an Army boot camp. Five drill instructors were tricked by researchers into believing that ten of the thirty soldiers that each would lead for the next fifteen weeks was nearly certain to achieve superior performance.

“Those randomly anointed soldiers were treated differently by instructors and came to believe they had special talents. During the course, there were huge differences between the anointed soldiers and everyone else. They displayed superior performance on many tasks, including firing weapons and reading maps. This study shows how the self-fulfilling prophecy works: the drill instructors believed something that was, as first, untrue, but believing it caused them to transform those lies into truths.”

Conversely, Bob warns us that the self-fulfilling prophecy doesn’t always work. ”You can bring in people who seem like talented stars, devote massive attention to them, and give them every chance to succeed. Yet their performance may still suck. The challenge for bosses – as for all human beings – is that they see what they believe. Psychologists call this confirmation bias: selective thinking where ‘one tends to notice and look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs.’”

There is far more in this book than what I’ve outlined above. I found this book to be a fun, well-researched book that made for an entertaining read. (Of course, I enjoy business books to begin with.) If you want insight on how to be a better boss, this book is definitely for you!