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Robert Sutton Talks About Good Boss, Bad Boss

Robert Sutton Talks About Good Boss, Bad Boss

By: Connie Blaszczyk, Managing Editor, Resource Center

In this conversation, author Robert Sutton talks about the influence that bosses exert on employee morale and in shaping their company culture.

Monster:  In your book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, you cite a study conducted over the past 50 years that consistently shows a majority of workers say their boss is the most stressful part of their job.

Sutton:  This is a pattern across a series of studies, not just one. In particular, Gallup studies suggest that having a great CEO or working at a great company doesn’t really matter that much — what matters most is the person you work for directly. It’s funny because we tend to focus on the one leader who runs the firm, but the better question is, “What is the legacy — the group of bosses — that those leaders create or leave behind?”

Monster:  You call out some of the characteristics of a bad boss  — talking too much, not listening, not respecting people’s time — the list goes on.

Sutton:  The first big diagnostic is this inability to actually listen to people.

One of the most amazing meetings I’ve ever been to was a day-long session where the senior guy never shut up — everyone grumbled in breaks. And then he pulled me aside and said, “I know it looks like I’m listening, but I’m actually just reloading for what I’m going to say next.” He was a poster child for the issue. The company got him to retire early, in part because they couldn’t take it any more. Even his clients complained about it.

Sometimes companies can calculate the actual cost of maintaining a difficult boss — it can be expensive. I’ve known of cases where the boss’s bonus was docked because of it.

Monster: Women tend to be better listeners, by virtue of their social training and often more compassionate. Do women with those traits tend to be better bosses?

Sutton: There’s good reason to believe that women are more attuned to others. But the disadvantage is often that women leaders  are allowed less operating room.

The idea about being perfectly assertive is knowing when to back off. Walking that line is more difficult for women who often have a narrower line to walk. It’s the difference between a balance beam and walking a tightrope – it’s easier to fall off the tightrope. Society gives women a narrower range in which to be seen as competent.

Monster: It’s human nature to hire in your own image — which is a problem when a bad boss is doing the hiring. How can this be avoided?

Sutton: Besides bringing in people with different skills and backgrounds, the test I always used to make was if they make you squirm, try to figure out why. Because one of the most well-documented findings of behavioral science is that the person we love the most is most like us. So a lot of it is getting other people involved in the decision-making process. 

But it’s not always bad to look for “like” people. In the early days, Google used a crazy hiring strategy — if you were one of the smartest people on earth at computer sciences, they wanted you. And that was pretty smart. So if it strategically makes sense, that’s fine.

Monster: So how can HR help in these situations — especially at smaller companies?

Sutton: I would look at the background of the person — what are the set of skills that differentiate them? And be sure that the right jobs are filled. I’ve seen many start-ups that don’t hire anyone who can do accounting. It’s because they don’t like accountants. The number of starts-ups that have gone under because of it is astounding. But we all stereotype as human beings.

Monster: There’s no doubt that the recession has intensified workplace dynamics for employees and bosses.

Sutton: You can see it — people are wearing out. I was recently in a session with 12 CEOs of large, well-known companies. We started by going around the table and talking about what’s on their mind.  And many said, “Gee, I’m trying to figure out if I have the guts to hire, because things look good. But I just don’t want to go thru another round of layoffs.”  And I think it’s a characteristic of good bosses to know that multiple rounds of layoffs are just not a good thing to do.

I’ve seen many bosses get depressed from their first layoff experience. But the best bosses need to be there for their people after a layoff — that’s when they’re needed most.  I also encourage companies to conduct exit interviews – they’re often hold valuable information.

Monster: In your book, you point out that employees who are treated fairly and openly are often hit harder by a layoff — and that they can react more dramatically.

Sutton: The first layoff is always the most devastating. It goes back to the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” The better you treat them in the past the harder it is.

In the process of implementing everything from pay cuts to layoffs, bosses should strive to provide realistic expectations to their staff. Something like what one CEO said, “I can’t promise there will be no layoffs, but they’re won’t be any layoffs for 3 months.” To me, that gives people some predictability and some compassion. It recognizes that going to work every day and waiting for the other shoe to fall is stressful. It’s about prediction, understanding, control and compassion — things I’ve been writing about for 25 years. 

Monster: You talk about how wise bosses like a good fight — can you define what is a “good” fight?

Sutton: A good fight is where people argue over good ideas without impuning one another’s integrity and self esteem, in an atmosphere of mutual self-respect. There’s a great line from organizational theorist Karl Weick that says people should argue as if they’re right and listen as if they’re wrong.

The person I talk about a lot is Brad Bird at Pixar. He talked about creating a context where people felt comfortable challenging him in the moment. And he talked about how difficult it is when people lose trust in psychological safety — and how hard it is to get it back. That’s especially important for creative work.

Monster: How do you cultivate a “good fighting’ mentality in an organization?

Sutton: In the book, we have a list of ways to lead a good fight — it starts by saying you’re going to argue over something according to the rules — and immediately pulling people out of the argument when they break the rules. 

At Intel, they actually teach classes in constructive confrontations. And going back to Brad Bird, you have to model it in the moment. When there’s conflict, you manage it. And you have to help people learn when to stop fighting, join arms and go forward. I’ve found that there are some people who are not very good at constructive conflict — they can’t take criticism. You’re probably best to just keep them out of the room, frankly.

Monster: A great boss can make a difficult company more bearable. But how do difficult companies learn how to hire great bosses?

Sutton: Even in the nastiest companies with the worst managers there are always pockets of good people. In those situations, it’s important where you place them. You create pockets of excellence and try to grow them.

It comes back to the importance of the hiring process and the consequences of it.  It’s straight out of a chapter in my book — bad is stronger than good.

Companies are always searching for super stars, looking for the best possible employees.  

Of course you want to avoid hiring  overly competitive and destructive people. But if you have any on staff, retrain them, put them on notice or terminate the employee. HR deals a lot with this dirty work — they should be more appreciated.

Remember to excentuate the positive and eliminate the negative in who you hire. The latter is more important than bringing in the stars.

Edgy people are not necessarily destructive — so check references. It’s often difficult to tell in the hiring process. But managing the consequences of your hiring decisions  is something that many companies should be more aggressive about.

Robert Sutton  is professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University and the author of numerous books, including most recently  Good Boss, Bad Boss. Follow Robert on Twitter.

Read an excerpt from Good Boss, Bad Boss on the MonsterThinking blog.