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Lessons From Nightmare Bosses

The No Asshole Rule author Robert Sutton shares lessons from his new book, Good Boss, Bad Boss.
Robert Sutton

Claudia Goetzelmann/Courtesy Subject

When Bosses Go Bad CEOs can sometimes suffer from "power poisoning," says Robert Sutton.

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Robert Sutton is like a priest or psychiatrist of office life: People tell him everything. And because he is not bound by vows of secrecy, Sutton, a professor in Stanford's department of management science and engineering, is free to share the tales, both comic and tragic, that pour in to him from managers and the managed alike. Sutton's 2007 book, The No Asshole Rule, was a bestseller. Its thesis -- don't hire jerks -- became policy at companies around the world. He recently followed that up with the equally canny and diverting Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Learn From the Worst (Business Plus). Sutton spoke with Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan about how to produce inspiration, rather than desperation, in your followers.

What's different about being the CEO and being a middle manager, in terms of how you behave as a boss?

Employees are always watching the boss. For bosses in the top position, that scrutiny is intense. Everything you do is magnified. You have to pay attention to every little thing.

Bosses also tend to get both more credit and more blame than they deserve. That, too, is magnified for the CEO. When the CEO receives a lot of credit for an achievement in the press, employees feel confident because they are working for a winner. But they also are aware of how much of the work they did. So the CEO needs to pile praise on employees. Also, if the leader accepts blame for a mistake, he is seen as more powerful and competent than if he tries to pass the buck.

Middle managers are supposed to protect their people from being distracted or exploited by the higher-ups. I guess if you are the CEO, that's not a problem.

If you're the CEO, then it's easier to protect employees from forces in the organization that can distract or demoralize them. But that doesn't mean you will. Sometimes, the person on top suffers from power poisoning. They become selfish and oblivious to those around them. So as your ability to protect your people rises, the likelihood that you are not going to do so also goes up.

You often hear about abusive people who experienced abuse as children. Are bad bosses the product of similarly dysfunctional management?

There's a bifurcation. One of my poster boys for an asshole is Scott Rudin, the famous Hollywood producer. Apparently, people who work for Scott Rudin learn to act like him. But there are other people who say, "I'm going to use my lousy boss as an example of what not to do."

An attending surgeon at a large university hospital told me that back when he was a resident, he and his fellow residents would meet every Friday for a drink, and they would nominate the asshole of the week. They'd write down in a book what that person did. Throughout their careers, they have put social pressure on each other not to become like the people they despise. So, yes, the kind of boss you have will affect the kind of boss you become.

Is it harder for bosses whose reports range from the highest- to the lowest-level employees?

It is harder. Because the people you oversee will have different motivations. With all due respect, this is where Jim Collins is full of shit. I have a friend whose family bought a chain of movie theaters. Maybe all that get-the-right-people-on-the-bus stuff applies to the managers of those multiplexes. But a couple levels down, you're dealing with teenagers who are going to be in the job for a year or less. My friend said there are four things you want those people to do: show up to work, look decent, not make out or get stoned while they're on the job, and not steal. If you can find people like that, you have a successful business.

Work may be the most important thing in your value system, but that may not be true for those around you. Especially if you have all the equity, and to the people around you, it is just a job.

In your book, you quote someone who called his boss "all transmission and no reception." What is the right balance between talking and listening?

On one hand, there is the blabbermouth theory of leadership. In Western cultures, the person who talks the most is viewed as having the highest status. And interrupting people is a way to seize power. Certainly talking is more pleasant than listening. But most bosses ought to shut up and listen more.

If you are a founder who hates firing and disciplining employees, is it OK to hire someone to be the bad guy?

That's a standard part of the COO's job. Alice Waters, throughout her career at Chez Panisse, never had to be the bad cop. She always had someone else to say, "Alice isn't happy about the way things are going. Maybe you should look for a job someplace else." Still, everyone loved Alice, even the people she fired. So there's an argument from a leadership perspective that having a bad guy you can blame isn't all bad.

But while it's OK to have someone do your dirty work for you, the most effective bosses do it themselves. They learn to do it in a way that does as little damage as possible.

From your book, it sounds as though being a good boss involves a lot of acting: acting confident, acting like you are in control. That sounds exhausting. And doesn't it compromise authenticity?

At the time you make a decision, no one knows whether it is right or wrong. But research shows that if you, as the authority figure, act confident about implementing the decision, it increases the odds of success. If you lack confidence, people will be less committed to your decision. They have less faith in you as a leader. So you have to convince them you are in control. Then, if it turns out you are wrong, you say, "I was wrong" and explain what you're going to do differently. And say that you are really confident that this new approach is right. You start the confidence cycle again.

There are many ways in which people show they are authentically confident. Some people are quiet, calm leaders, and some are more inspirational. But for most leaders, there are times you need to fake it. What is the alternative? Do employees want to follow a leader who constantly conveys his doubts that something is going to work out? Still, I do generally believe in authenticity. It is a dilemma.

If you are hiring managers, what questions should you ask to ascertain whether they are good bosses?

Interviews are among the most useless ways to select people. If you can get real information from employees who have actually worked for a candidate, you'll get a much more accurate picture. Another good predictor is to give someone a trial period and watch them closely. Our daughter's high school principal has been trying to turn around this very complicated school. It's the kind of place where some kids end up at Harvard and some kids end up in jail. He spent a lot of time sitting in the backs of classrooms trying to figure out which teachers were lousy. He said it was easy for the teachers to fake it for 10 minutes. But they couldn't fake it for an hour.

Are there sadomasochistic boss-employee relationships that look twisted from the outside but actually work well for the people involved?

Please do not portray me as an expert in S&M relationships. But there are definitely employees who love being martyrs for their abusive bosses. People who, if they didn't have their boss to complain about, wouldn't know what to do with themselves. But in the end, even people who are masochists are going to suffer all kinds of physical and emotional health issues if they stay in a toxic environment.

I was surprised by the use not only of your trademark word asshole throughout the book but also other expletives. Given that your last book was a bestseller, can we expect a wave of copycats producing profane management literature?

What I've learned is that the occasional swearword has an impact -- an almost physiological response. A writer on my blog put it this way: If you've got a tool box, sometimes you want to use a hand drill, and sometimes you want to use a really powerful electric drill. Swearwords exist because they pack more of a wallop.

So can I count on you to write a blurb for my forthcoming book, High-Performance Teaming for Douche Bags?

Sure. I can do it now. "This is good shit."

IMAGE: 20th Century Fox Film Corp./Everett Collection
Last updated: Oct 1, 2010

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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