Management
May 7, 2012

Who are you: wise boss or bosshole?

Good Boss, Bad Boss

Robert I. Sutton,

Business Plus, 308 pages, $26.99

 

Are you a good boss? Or a bad boss? Or a bit of both? Presumably, whichever category you place yourself, you want to improve. And Robert Sutton’s latest book, Good Boss, Bad Boss can lend a helping hand.

It follows The No Asshole Rule, his look on the damage caused by workplace jerks and how to keep such creeps out of your organization. That book touched a nerve among readers, and the conversations and correspondence inspired by it led him to ponder a sequel. But he realized the concerns raised were intertwined with feelings and aspirations that swirled around the central figure in our workplaces: the boss. Bosses were the central figures in most of the stories he heard about the destructive souls who damaged employees’ performance and self worth.

“I realized that the best bosses did far more than enforce the no asshole rule. They took diverse and intertwined steps to create effective and humane workplaces. And the worst bosses weren’t just guilty of letting assholes rule the roost. Their incompetence reared its head in a host of other ways,” he writes.

Bosses matter, and this book focuses on what the best bosses do (while still including material on the worst so we know what not to do). Having a good boss decreases your chance of having a heart attack. It increases the chance of higher performance by your team. It increases retention, since people tend to quit bosses, not organizations.

Being a good boss, he argues, starts by embracing five beliefs that the best bosses share:

1.Don’t crush the bird: Long-time Los Angeles Dodgers coach Tommy Lasorda once said, “I believe that managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly, you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.” Every manager must deal with the delicate balance between managing too much and managing too little. “Savvy bosses travel though their days in search of the sweet spot between interjecting too little and too much, keeping a close eye on when more or less pressure, nagging, and intimidation is needed to get the best out of their people,” he writes.

2.Grit gets you there: The best bosses think and act like they are running a marathon, not a short sprint. They take the long view. They grind it out, day after day, despite failures, adversities and plateaus that seem interminable. They have stamina – and grit.

3.Small wins are the path: Great big goals set direction and energize people but if that’s all you’ve got he warns that you are doomed. “The path to success is paved with small wins. Even the grandest and most glorious victories rest on a string of modest but constructive steps forward,” he notes. As boss, you must frame what you and your people do as a series of manageable steps.

4.Beware the toxic tandem: People in power tend to become self-centred and oblivious to what followers need, do and say. That problem is compounded by the fact a boss’s self-absorbed words and deeds are closely scrutinized by subordinates. Combined, that adds up to a toxic tandem, which you must avoid.

5.Get their backs: Bosses protect their people.

Sutton says great bosses are concerned about performance and humanity. They do their best to get great performance from their people. Great bosses and their followers produce work that consistently meets or exceeds the expectations of those who use and evaluate it.

At the same time, great bosses do everything possible to ensure people experience dignity and pride. While the judgment on a boss’s effectiveness at gaining strong performance will come from outsiders, in this case the boss’s effectiveness is best judged by insiders, especially followers.

It’s a balancing act. At times, you may have to tip in one direction or the other, but over the long haul a good boss is conscious of both performance and humanity. In doing that, they:

  • Take control: If you want to be a successful boss, you have to convince people that your words and deeds pack a punch. You must magnify the illusion and reality that you are in control of what your followers do, how well they perform, and how they feel along the way. As a start, act as if you are in control, even when you aren’t. That includes making crisp decisions. Indecision is the hallmark of crummy bosses. Don’t dither – say yes or no.
  • Strive to be wise: “The best bosses dance on the edge of overconfidence, but a healthy dose of self-doubt and humility save them from turning arrogant and pigheaded. Bosses who fail to strike this balance are incompetent, dangerous to follow, and downright demeaning,” he observes. Smart bosses aren’t necessarily wise bosses. Smart bosses make definitive statements; answer questions; talk well; give help, but don’t ask for help and refuse it when offered; and defend and stick to the current course of action. Wise bosses make statements that reveal uncertainty and confusion; ask questions; listen well; give help, ask for help and accept help when offered; and challenge and often revise courses of action.
  • Deal with stars and rotten apples: Good bosses assume the best of people, but make sure they only anoint as stars individuals who bolster other people’s performance and humanity. They cut loose the real losers, and protect everyone from energy suckers. When they have skilled lone wolves, they design those individual’s job so that they can work alone while the boss weaves their tasks together with the rest of the team.
  • Link talk and action: Good bosses establish a pecking order where people who know the most about a problem wield the greatest influence over what is done. “You especially need to watch who talks the most (and least). Don’t let your people fall prey to the blabbermouth theory of leadership. At least in Western countries, people who talk first and more frequently usually wield excessive influence over others – even when they spew out nonsense,” he warns. Also in linking talk to action, he urges you to come up with simple strategies, rather than joining the bosses who try to demonstrate their brilliance by setting forth incomprehensible strategies.
  • Serve as a human shield: A good boss takes pride in absorbing and deflecting heat from superiors and customers, doing all kinds of silly or boring tasks, and battling back against any idiot or slight that makes life harder than necessary for subordinates. Great bosses, he argues, are creatively incompetent, managing to ignore or do a lousy job on irrelevant or idiotic procedures laid down from on high. They also don’t waste the staff’s time and energy in useless meetings.
  • Don’t shirk the dirty work: The best bosses don’t delay or duck difficult deeds. A study by Charles O’Reilly and Barton Weiz found that bosses of the most productive work groups confronted problematic sales employees – those with poor productivity, lack of punctuality, and bad attitudes – directly and quickly, issued more warnings and formal punishments, and promptly fired employees when warnings failed. On the other hand, Sutton says that “lousy bosses live in a fantasyland of denial and delusion. They are remarkably adept at inventing excuses for putting off gut-wrenching work. They talk tough but lack the courage to confront employees with negative feedback, punishments, or other bad

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