Open your world forum: transcript of the Bob Sutton webcast |

Open your world forum: transcript of the Bob Sutton webcast

Posted 17 Dec 2010 by 

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The following is a transcript of the "Building a Better Boss" webcast with Bob Sutton and Polly LaBarre held on December 9, 2010. The webcast recap and recording are both available.

    Chris Morse, Red Hat
    Polly LaBarre, MIX
    Bob Sutton, author of “Good Boss, Bad Boss” (and other stories)

Chris: Hi folks, welcome to the latest in our Open Your World webcast series. My name is Chris Morse and I’m part of the Brand Communications and Design team at Red Hat. I also have the pleasure of being part of the team, which has been hosting these webcasts for the last few months.  For those of you who are new to, we are a community of folks exploring, investigating, and identifying the ways that open source principles are being used around us, and the way that open source methods could be applied to problems around the world.

The team is also thrilled to co-host our second webcast with the Management Information Exchange, also known as the MIX. The MIX is an open innovation project dedicated to using the tools of Web 2.0 to create Management 2.0. The premise is that management is nothing less than the technology of human accomplishment. After a hundred years of incremental tweaks, it now needs to be reinvented for a new age. Learn about their work at

Before I pass things over to our hosts, I have a few housekeeping items to cover to make sure everyone has an optimal experience. First off, please disable pop-up blockers in your browser. Also, make sure your computer speakers are turned up and the volume is adjusted since audio will be streamed over the web for today’s webcast. If you experience buffering or other connectivity issues, press F-5 on your keyboard to refresh the webcast player. If you would like to enlarge the slide presentation, then click the magnifying glass on the bottom right corner of the slideshow. And finally, since the team is all about collaboration, we’d love to hear your questions or comments for the speakers. Please submit your feedback by clicking the ask a question box. You can simply enter your questions and hit submit. We’ll do our best to answer as many questions as time allows.

At this time, I would like to hand this over to our host, Polly LaBarre. Polly is a best-selling author,  speaker and television correspondent, who has contributed to the business innovation conversation in a range of forums for over a dozen years. She’s also the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-selling book, “Mavericks at Work: How the Most Original Minds in Business Win.” Polly is also the editorial director of MIX and our first-ever returning host on the Open Your World webcast series. Polly.

Polly: Thank you Chris, that was a great introduction. But I’m here to introduce the real star, Bob Sutton and I want to thank our partners at Red Hat and, for hosting, and all of you for showing up today. As Chris mentioned, here at the MIX we have a pretty big dream, which is to build organizations that are fit for the future, and, more importantly, genuinely fit for human beings. And that undertaking is obviously not the job of any one organization or of any one individual, it’s every body’s problem. We designed the MIX a collaborative platform to both surface bold ideas and inspiring stories and also to make progress on a set of make-or-break challenges--we call them Management Moonshots--that we think will help make organizations more resilient, more inventive, more inspiring, and more accountable.

And I think there’s no better person to come help offer some really clear-eyed and provocative points of view around one of those big challenges, which is fundamentally redefining the work of leadership, what it means to be a boss. Bob Sutton, I think is one of the most provocative and practical and also profoundly human thinkers and writers in the realm of management today. He’s written five books over the last decade about closing the gap between organizational knowledge and organizational action, about evident faiths rather than fear or faith-based management. One of my favorite books is something he wrote is called ‘Weird Ideas That Work,’ it’s just phenomenal. His latest books delve into new territory, taking his evidence-based approach to the realm of workplaces polluted by jerks and bad bosses. ‘The No Asshole Rule’ was kind of a worldwide phenomenon, and he followed it up with a book called ‘Good Boss, Bad Boss,’ which we’re here to talk about today. So, Bob is that rare researcher who combines all of the sort of evidence and analysis with a great gift for storytelling, so we’re really lucky to have him here today. I’m going to hand it over to Bob, he’s going to do a presentation. And please do throw your questions up on the board all the while, because I’ll be looking at them and I might even interrupt Bob if there’s something particularly relevant. And we’ll have a juicy Q & A after his presentation. Bob, thanks so much for being here!

Bob: Thanks, Polly. A delight as always. Polly and I have been working together for years now, intermittently, and I’d like to thank everybody for showing up and listening to the webcast. So let me start out and do a little bit of stage-setting. So, what I’m going to do this morning is to talk and we’ll have questions and answers too about--and this sounds like the classic Polly title--Building a Better Boss which might have been a better title than the actual title of the book. And so what happened was, probably in about 2006, 2007, I have this book that came out, that Polly just mentioned, ‘The No Asshole Rule,’ and in the process of writing that book and going around and talking to people, it was a quite interesting experience because, as Polly mentioned, I’d written three management books before that, but I never quite experienced just the deluge of just emotion and strong feelings and emails from all over the world. Just the other day I got an amazing email from a lawyer who said that she walked up to her boss, she couldn’t stand it anymore, and she gave him a take-this-job-and-shove-it letter, and she put it in a No Asshole book as her like resignation strategy. So all sorts of strange things have happened.

And as a result of the success of that book, I was under quite a bit of pressure to write a sequel, so I guess it’s sort of like Hollywood, they want to see another one. And even though I was under quite a bit of pressure from my publishers, including my French publisher, who wrote me a note and said “Dear Bob, When do we see the asshole shits again?” But I sort of controlled myself and realized when I looked at the themes and all the notes I got and the conversations I was having, that really the central character in about 90% of the stories (I actually counted among the thousands of emails at one point) was the boss. So either it was the person who is your immediate supervisor, the person you report to directly, or it was a boss writing about how to do a better job doing his or her job.

And so, since most of my background (as Polly has described, in my other books) was really more about block-and-tackle, meat-and-potatoes management issues. I went through and started working on this book, for several years, to develop for me what are the characteristics of a good versus a bad boss. I think an important headline for me and this is partly a value statement but there is also evidence to support it. To me, a great boss does two things:  one, they’re competent. two, they’re benevolent, they treat people with respect. And although I guess there’s purely capitalist types that will argue that all that matters is squeezing as much money and work as possible out of people--well, my perspective if you’re great at that, but treat people like dirt, in my book you’re still a loser. And as I say, there’s evidence to support that people who keep squeezing more and more out of people are rated as lousy bosses and have uncreative employees.

So I wrote this book, ‘Good Boss, Bad Boss,’ which is going to be the main place that the ideas we’re talking about come from today, and as Polly said, essentially what this book is composed of is an evidence-based approach which means that I didn’t just look for the one magical study, I read probably thousands of peer-reviewed studies and though I did some interviews of my own, usually the main reasons to do those interviews was to get good stories to help sort of back up the patterns that I see in articles that are published in the best journals.

So let me start out to sort of warm things up, and give you a sense of kind of the big picture. If I was going to step back and say, what’s really the main point of this book. The main point of this book is something that really started striking me after reading a lot of research. It sort of started when I read about a talk that Jack Welch gave, and he used this line, which he said to aspiring bosses, “It’s not all about you.” And I was quite fascinated with that, because on one hand, the reason he was saying it was to teach them they don’t need to be or shouldn’t be self-centered jerks, but in fact if you look at the research, I would describe it as a useful half-truth. And it’s useful because of pushing back on egotism. But the reason it’s actually only half-truth at best, there’s an enormous amount of evidence that when you’re a boss, when you lead people, the people who you are in charge of are remarkably focused on your every move. Sometimes they call this the magnification effect. So, as a result, and as the slide says, the best bosses learn to be remarkably self-obsessed, but not in an egotistical way, but in a way that makes them realize that they’ve got to work to be in tune with the people they lead. And also the second point, that’s related to this, and hopefully we can talk about this later; Another way in which it’s all about you when you’re the boss. There’s a great deal of evidence that, as a boss, bosses from outsiders, bosses to clients, shareholders, pick who you want--their lot in life is that they will get more credit and more blame than they deserve for the performance of their organizations, or the teams that they lead or whatever. So when you’re a boss there are sort of two things going on here.  It’s all about you because the people who you lead are watching so closely, and because you get so much blame and credit for performance. So this notion is that the best bosses are in tune with what it feels like to work for them and how they’re seen by outsiders is to me almost sort of the core of what a good boss or manager does.

In moving along, this all sort of sounds easy--well, I just got to be in tune with the people I lead. But in fact there’s an array of social, psychological forces that make it difficult for people to be in tune with what it feels like to work for them. And I call this the toxic tandem. Essentially, it’s based on a large body of work by psychologists and anthropologists that shows that, essentially, that attention is directed up the hierarchy. That people play much more attention to the people that lead them than their leaders pay to them--it’s asymmetrical.

And I’ve got a little story here, one of the more amazing stories I’ve heard in my various travels through the management world. In early 2009, I was doing a little session--so one of those little sessions at Stanford for project managers and it was on how to be a good boss in a bad economy, and I was talking about layoffs that happened in various organizations and how to handle them. And afterwards, a guy came up to me from a local company, he was a project manager. And he told me this story about the toxic tandem, hence the picture with the guy looking at his shoes. And he says, so we had an interesting incident in the office last night where one of the assistants came up to one of the Executive Vice Presidents, and she said, “When are we going to have the layoffs? When are they going to happen?” And the Vice President was just shocked, and the reason that he was shocked was, well, the layoffs were planned but it was a big secret and nobody knew about it. So he said to her, “How did you know the layoffs were coming?” And he admitted them, and she said, as the quote says, “Because you’re having an interesting shoes day.”

So what happened was, when this guy had bad news or was upset he wouldn’t look people in the eye, he would look at his shoes. So that was sort of like a leak or a tell, as they say in poker. She had figured out what was going on because he couldn’t look people in the eye. The reason I like that story is, to go back to this attention going up the hierarchy. There’s a lot of evidence--In this case they were looking at him very closely and he was oblivious to this tell that he had. So this asymmetry in attention means the best boss should be in tune with what it feels like to work for them, but on the other hand, there’s something about being in a position of power that makes that difficult to do. And we’ll talk about that in a little bit.

And as a ‘gee by the way,’ there’s an interesting research on apes. It turns out baboons suffer from this phenomenon, too, or just enjoy it. As the slide says, a typical baboon troop member glances up at the alpha male every 20 or 30 seconds because that’s the person or I guess the ape with the power in this situation. There is something wired in that’s adaptive about this.

Now to get back to the point why it’s difficult to be in tune with the people you lead, there’s just this amazing body of research. Now and I’ve followed this pretty closely, now about 200 peer-reviewed studies that show that--and these are independent of personality, although certainly there’s personality effects. When you give people power over others, three things happen fairly consistently. The first thing that happens is that when people have power over others, they focus more on their own needs and concerns. So, inwardly focused, selfishly focused. The second thing, is they focus less attention on the needs and also the actions of others. And third, they act like the rules don’t apply to them. And just to make a swipe and if somebody’s from HP, I don’t know whether I have to apologize or not.

Mark Hurd’s behavior, we don’t know exactly what happened when he got fired for his sexual harassment lawsuit and in breaking the accounting rules. If you want to predict when a CEO is going to be a bad boy or girl, you would say when there’s a lot of performance and a lot of positive attention, that’s when they’re most at risk, when the power feels big.  But to go back to the experimental research, my favorite study that shows how this sort of power poisoning effect happens was done at the University at California Berkley some years back, about ten years ago. Dr. Keltner, at Berkeley and Deb Gruenfeld, my colleague at Stanford. It’s a very simple setup, typical study. Where what happened was that essentially the experimenters lied to them, to the subjects. But the set-up was that you had three students, two were brainstorming about solving a social problem. And then the other one was assigned the boss position. So two were worker bees, one was the boss.

But the real test--the real thing that was the manipulation was, halfway through the experiment the experimenter brought in a plate of five cookies. We all know, you don’t take the last cookie, you’re right, we all know that. But what ended up happening, was the big question was what happened to the fourth cookie. What happened was, you got a three-item measure of what we call disinhibited eating. That the person in power tends to take the fourth cookie, they tend to eat with their mouth open, and they tend to leave more crumbs, and these three items were inter-correlated pretty strongly, about a .8. And you think about this, just this little sort of setup, you have people literally sort of turning into pigs, and to go back to my three sort-of indicators that somebody is suffering from power poisoning. The first one is that they act like their needs are more important than others, they ignore the needs of others, and they act like the rules don’t apply to them.

Now this is just a cute little setup, but when you magnify that across the effects of having power day after day after day over people, you can see how difficult it is, that even though the best bosses are in tune how it feels to work for them and understand how the people that they lead see them, it’s something that they have to accomplish, they have to fight kind of the basic aspects of being a human being. So that’s something I sort of set up.

And, I also want to hasten to add, and I think this is important given Polly’s setup and given that I’ve written this book on assholes and a book with bad boss in the title. My focus, especially in this talk and in this more recent book is more on what it takes to make a good boss be better.  Because in fact most bosses in the US--we’ve actually got quite-good recent surveys--80% of Americans think they have a pretty good boss.  Only about 10% of Americans report they’re being bullied by their boss--which is actually down from a few years ago. So it isn’t all bad bosses, a lot of it is what does it take to make a good boss even better.

So let’s move on and talk about some of the nuances, and in the book ‘Good Boss Bad Boss,’ I obviously have space to go into many nuances of in-tune bosses. But I’m going to pick just a few of the highlights, given the nature of the webcast, and the fact that you all have lives and we all have to go back to work.

So let me start out with assertiveness. There’s some fascinating research that’s been coming out, the main two people here are Dan Adams at Columbia and also Frank Flynn at my University, Stanford, and they’ve done a number of survey studies and now they’re starting to move into experiments. And they keep finding, that when you ask people, tell us about your current boss or your last boss. Where does he or she rank in terms of words like competitive, aggressive, passive, submissive. And what they kept finding was that the bosses who were rated most highly, the people who you would want to work for again, would recommend to a friend to work, the person you would want to be like when you become a boss, are people who are moderately assertive. Not people who are overbearing, not people who, if you will, are doormats.

And that finding is interesting, in fact in the studies they’ve done so far, the power of being a perfectly assertive boss is considerably higher than charisma so there really does seem to be something going on here. And one thing I’d hasten to add, to go back to this notion of the in-tune boss, is that the key to being in tune isn’t just that you’re medium all the time. It’s just that good bosses know when to sorta turn up the volume and push, which people need to be pushed and they also know which people sort of need to be left alone, and when to sort of back off. And to me, I think this is really a potentially sort of breakthrough idea, and in fact at one point when I was working on the book, I had a long conversation with a guy named Mark Hershon, who names things for a living, he named the Blackberry and the Swiffer, for example, and when he read this stuff, he said the book perhaps should be called Top Dog on a Tightrope, which I think might have been a nice name too. This idea of the perfectly assertive boss and what a bosses’ job to do is to learn how to make adjustments in response to what happens around him or her.

The other thing, in terms of self-awareness, and these data are not published, but they tell me that they came out of this dataset. So it turns out that bosses who are doormats, who are sort of wimps, they are usually quite aware of their weaknesses. The bosses who tend to be most clueless are the overbearing jerks. So the lesson here is if you’re an overbearing asshole boss, you’re not only viewed as lousy by the people that you lead, you’re probably also clueless about it. So I thought that was kind of a cool finding.

And my favorite quote here (even though I’m a San Francisco Giants fan), that sort of summarizes what it takes, this is Tommy Lasorda, led the Dodgers, actually worked for the Dodgers for 50 years, and he had this great line. “I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it.” That’s the overbearing boss. “If you hold it too loosely you lose it.” And I think philosophically, that’s correct.

And one thing I should emphasize is that it’s not like I can describe to any manager exactly when you need to push and when you need to back off, but there are some sort of rough recommendations, evidence-based recommendations I can make. In particular, if you’re leading creative work and often, and especially with skilled people, there’s a lot of evidence that sometimes the best management is no management at all. And in particular, when people do creative work, the evidence is that when their boss supervises them closely, two things happen. The first thing is the boss will rate that the employee does a better job, does better work. But in fact the evidence seems to be that they do worse work, they work more slowly and also because the boss is watching and evaluating them, they actually do less creative work, cause they don’t want to screw up in front of the boss. So, if you lead creative work, you might want to learn to work on the method of management by getting out of the way.

And my favorite quote, and Polly, this is from Weird Ideas That Work, the old book we did stuff on together years ago. Bill Coyne, who led R&D at 3M for over a decade, had a saying, and I heard him say it at Motorola in about 2000, “After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every week to see how it is doing.” He also, as a footnote, described how much of his job as Head of R&D at 3M for over a decade, was to simply keep creative, productive people away from senior management, especially away from people in upper management. And, by the way, especially people in organizational strategy he said were most dangerous, so I think there is a little bit of a warning there.

So let’s move next to another hallmark, the second hallmark of bosses who are in tune in general are among the most effective bosses. And this is something, this is a notion that my colleague Jeff Pfeffer and I have been working on for well over a decade and philosophers for thousands of years, and this is the notion of wisdom. And one of the themes that I talk a lot about in ‘Good Boss, Bad Boss,’  is the notion that on one hand, yeah, so this is the second chapter, that good bosses convince other people they’re in charge, they’re in control, they have confidence, people want to follow them. That’s definitely part of the job of being the boss. But there’s a danger there because you might start believing your own bullshit too much and become sort of pig-headed and arrogant. The way that we think about wisdom, and there’s a fair amount of evidence to support this is: Essentially, as the line says, the best bosses dance on the edge of overconfidence, but they have just enough self-doubt and humility to save them from turning into arrogant, dangerous jerks.

And the way I like this best, and a number of people have coined it this way, especially psychologists, is that they have the attitude and wisdom, which is the courage to act on what they know or at least they believe they know, because if there’s not action, nothing happens. But they also have the humility to doubt their assumptions and actions, sometimes back stage when that’s necessary. And to this point, some years ago, at a Harvard conference, I went to a speech that Andy Grove gave, and he had this great line--and this is edited--the whole excerpt was fabulous, and he said, “I think it is very important for you to do two things--act on your temporary conviction as if it was your real conviction. “ So that’s the confidence or courage part of wisdom. And second, “When you realize you made a mistake, correct course very quickly.”  So there’s two parts to that second half, one, you have to know that things are going bad and accept it, and two, you have to act and to me that is sort of the hallmark of wisdom. And this sort of brings us to the question again for in-tune bosses: Well, what do you do to be in tune with the people you lead? And one of the things that I think that is important and incredibly obvious yet often done so badly, is the notion of listening well. And there’s a quote from John Wooden, the famous basketball coach, describing how important it is to listen and how bad it is to fake it.

I think one of the worst management meetings I ever went to in my life, this was a group of very senior people. The CEO talked and he talked and talked and talked and talked and when anybody tried to say something he interrupted them and he talked and he talked and he talked and he talked, and finally I was sitting next to him in the three in the afternoon in a room where I was sort of surrounded by people who looked like they’ve been shot, everybody was just so exhausted, and he leans over to me and he says, “It looks like I’m listening, but I’m not really listening, I’m just reloading, trying to decide what to say next.” And later on it was actually kind of interesting, as this was a well-managed company. Word had gotten around that he was all transmission and no reception, so he actually got in trouble with his boss. So it was an interesting situation.

A recommendation for understanding what’s going on with your people is something that although it’s right, it’s also one of those things that isn’t enough, and in fact if you’re in an organization, I think it’s very important to remember that there are two things about human beings and organizations that encourage people not to give you the truth or the bad news.

The first one is, there’s a large body of research on false flattery and flattery in general. What research on flattery shows, is that when we realize someone is flattering us, as human beings, though we might say “Oh, I don’t like that,” in fact it makes us like that person more. Moreover,  even when we know it’s false flattery, we still like them more.

My little story from Stanford, and I actually just experienced this recently. I have a colleague at Stanford, his name is Rod Kramer, we’ve been together at Stanford about 25 years. I see Rod about once a year. Whenever I see Rod, he almost always says the same thing, which is, “Bob, you look great, you have lost weight.” And it turns out most times, I have not unfortunately lost weight, but I still like Rod more. And that sort of effect, that basic effect of flattery, and you start magnifying that in organizations where everybody is kissing up to their boss because it’s in their best interest to do it, and that’s not a way to get good news to people. And the second thing, which is even more insidious, as the slide shows, there is a large body of research on something called the mum effect. It’s the shoot the messenger effect.

When we deliver bad news to other people, they like us less. So, sort of magnify this in an organizational hierarchy: On average, the smart employee is kissing up to his boss, doing false flattery and also is withholding bad news, and that’s how you get liked and promoted, and as a result it sometimes can be very difficult for bosses to have the truth. And, this is one of those things, in fact in part with McKinsey, I’ve done a lot of conferences where senior executives will get together, especially CEOs and talk about how lonely it is to be CEO. And one of the things they always get to is how difficult it is to get people to tell them the truth and tell them when they’re messing up. And this was part of the story of the financial meltdown, if you followed that. An extreme case of this, we have Richard Feynmen on the Roger’s commission Rogers tried to stop him but he went rogue and wandered around NASA. As many of you know, he figured out why the shuttle exploded, because of the o-rings but he also asked an interesting hypothetical question: “What’s the estimate that the main shuttle engine would fail.” And he got the engineers at the bottom estimating one in 200 and the senior executives at the top estimating one in 100,000. So you have this sort of filtering effect which can actually be quite terrifying.

So that’s the bad news. Some of the other more good news is how do you overcome the situation, how do you create a condition where people actually do sort of surface the bad and the good news and a boss sort of feels safe to move forwards, if you will, to act with knowledge while doubting what they know. One of the best ways is to have and foment constructive conflict. And, my colleague Karl Weick in the University of Michigan has put this in a lovely way, which is you want to have a situation where people feel as if they can fight as if they’re right and listen as if they’re wrong. And now, in fact, we have quite a few peer-reviewed studies that show the best bosses make it safe to fight like crazy for ideas in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

And that’s sort of the key, the key to making this happen, and it’s a hallmark of great companies, great creative leaders. On this point, William Wrigley, of chewing gum fame, has this great line, “When two people in business agree, one of them is unnecessary.”

If I was going to pick the person who I’ve interviewed, we interviewed him for the book, who impressed me most with his ability to foment constructive comments around him, it would be Brad Bird. Brad Bird is the Academy-award winning director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Just a great guy and one of the things he’s quite famous for is creating a situation where there can be constructive conflict around him, and, in fact, Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull brought him in to shake things up, to challenge things, at Pixar, during a sort of key moment when they were worrying they were too successful.

Two other things about fighting. One, you shouldn’t fight, and this is in the creative process, in the very early stages, when ideas are just coming out on the table. You have to sort of get them on the table and get them out and then you can sort of shoot them down. That’s a picture of a brainstorming session at IDEO product development. And you can kind of see they’re developing the ideas. In fact, at the head of the table is Jim Yurchenko, employee number one at IDEO.  And then the other thing, also from the Andy Grove playbook is that there comes a point where, after a decision is made, to have good implementation, it’s time to stop fighting. To disagree, and then commit, and sort of implement the idea. So this is not an argument for fighting as much as possible all of the time, rather it’s an argument for fighting in the right way, at the right time.

So that’s the fighting stuff, the next thing is something that, especially in this book, after digging through the research on stars and rotten apples, the thing that I really came away with, and there’s very strong evidence to support this. To over-simplify it, if you say what is the bosses job: to eliminate the negative or to accentuate the positive. If I had to pick one, I would pick eliminate the negative and let me talk a little bit about stars and rotten apples and we’ll get to some of this.

One of the things that’s related to sort of basic HR stuff, but portrayed in a different way. But the question that I’ve been asked and Jeff Pfeffer and I’ve sort of struggled with this question in at least two books, which is what kind of compensation or rewards system should a company have, we could do seven webinars on that and dig into the details.  But if I was going to pick one thing, the thing that we kept seeing over and over and over again in organizations, regardless of the awards system that were either effective work teams, effective organizations, it sort of got down to how they defined superstars. So what kind of superstars does a leader or company hire and breed. In the best companies, the best leaders, they would consistently push people ahead, who not only were great individual performers, but people who helped others around them succeed. And they were especially aggressive about managing or often firing others who hurt others or stomped on others on the way to the top. Who engaged in dysfunctional internal competition. And a great example of this, and we talk about this in the knowing-doing gap, and also talk about it in the new book because it’s such a great example.

Men’s Warehouse, which is west-coast based, and I think it’s now throughout the United states--they wholesale men’s clothes. And their founder is a guy named George Zimmer, who is on TV, quite well known, at least to those of us in the States. They have a philosophy of team selling. That if you work as a salesperson in a Men’s Warehouse store, if somebody walks in, the sale isn’t supposed to be done just by you, but everybody’s supposed to help, if you’re the person who gets the commission. And they had a person who was stealing so many sales from different employees and was undermining the sales environment so much, that they were thinking about firing him, but they were worried because he was the highest-performing salesperson in the Seattle region. But after a lot of consternation, they finally fired him. But the punchline here was that although no individual salesperson reached the level of our star salesperson, the sales in the store went up 30%.  To me that’s the lesson, you’ve got your rotten apple, you’ve got to get rid of them.

And sort of digging into this rotten apple stuff a little bit more, there’s this notion, very well documented, I talk about it a bit in Good Boss, Bad Boss. If somebody sends me an email, I’ll send you the original academic article, which is that one of the core causes, the problems when you’ve got a rotten apple in a group is this phenomenon that bad is stronger than good. And so the bad is stronger than good phenomenon is this finding that they have in now dozens of studies, it’s called the five to one rule. So what happens is, in the workplace, if you have a negative interaction with one of your colleagues or your bosses, it packs five times the effect on mood than a positive reaction.

And also, the stuff on personal relationships, for those of us that are in personal relationships it’s also scary and also enlightened for those of us in personal relationships.  Which is that, in relationships that actually last versus those that fall apart, they tend to last so long that for every bad interaction that happens in a couple that there are five good interactions to make up for it. And this is sort of the basic, if you will, psychology that underlines some really fascinating research by a guy named Will Phelps who is a professor, he did this research up in Seattle when he was there. And what he found across a large number of studies, is having even one negative team member, so somebody who is a deadbeat, a downer, an asshole--just having one person like that on your team can bring down performance 30 to 40% to teams that don’t have them. And there’s two reasons this happens. One is negative behaviors are contagious, so that’s why there’s the picture of the rotten apple, it just spreads.  And the other is that when you have someone like that on your team, you spend more time on dealing with that person and less time on performance.

And to sort of wrap up the rotten apple stuff, one of my favorite companies is a company called Baird, CEO Paul Purcell, a financial services firm in the Midwest, they’re very successful. And one of the things that they’ve been bragging about and has been helping get them on the best place to work list for the last three of four years, is they have a No Asshole rule. I talked to Paul Purcell about this, he’s the CEO, and I said how do you enforce the No Asshole rule, and he said, “During the interview, I tell them that if I discover they’re an asshole, I’m going to fire them.” And it was sort of like a bizarre selection technique. But I said to him, well, how do you know when somebody is an asshole? And he said, well, they do three things: One, they put their self-interest ahead of their colleagues, ahead of the organization, and ahead of customers. And to go back to sort of my definition of what a star employee is, again you’re getting this sort of notion where people are more individualistic and selfish, as opposed to supporting the organization as a whole.

Ok, so we’ve got one more and then we can go to some questions and conversations. So a final thing that you see over and over again, when I was reviewing the research on bosses, and you ask people, “What’s a good boss?” A good boss is somebody who, the expression is “They have their back,” they protect me, they protect me when I need it and so as the slides show, essentially the best bosses protect people from all sorts of bad things, harm, intrusions, distractions, thing like that, idiocy and so on. Sometimes this is just simple things. For example as the Mintzberg quote here says, this is simply is a case of--he’s got this famous old quote--”someone once defined a manager, half in jest, as someone who sees the visitors so everyone else can get their work done. “ So just protecting people in mundane ways is often the way that this happens.

Another case, a case that really where you see a lot of abuse in organizational life are meetings. And, in fact, one of the more disturbing literatures I’ve read, there’s actually some new books out here that talk about this, argue that if you want to have power in your organizations, you should for example call meetings and then show up late, and the reason you want to show up late is that it shows you’re so important, the meeting can’t start without you. Well, that’s nice but it disrespects people’s time and, as the example from Will Wright says:  He worked with this guy Ocean Quigley, who was the canary in the coal mine. This was the guy when he raised his hand and was bored, that was a sign that Will Wright would end the meetings. Will Wright also charges people a dollar when they call a meeting to get them to think about it.

For me if I was going to pick one place, one microcosm where bosses either protect their people’s time or who sort of abused it, I think meeting behavior is very important. And by the way, if I was going to nominate the person who I worked with who is best about this, it would be John Hennessay, my President at Stanford University. When he was my dean, he was absolutely fabulous about always having meetings on time and even ending them early out of respect for people.

And finally, as an example of protecting idiocy from on high, I can’t resist sharing this because I just got this, or approval to use this from Pixar just a couple weeks ago.  Many of us know how successful Pixar is now, but it turns they wandered in the woods for some 30 years, and were in all sorts of different forms especially under Ed Catmull, the founder and guiding spirit of it, along with Alvy Ray Smith, who was great technologically. At one point they were part of the Lucas empire, and some efficiency expert was hired, brought in to cut costs, largely because George Lucas was having an expensive divorce, and he needed some money. And so what happened was this efficiency expert pressed them to start doing layoffs, start doing layoffs, start doing layoffs. And Alvy Ray and Ed kept refusing to answer, and finally they gave into the pressure and they gave a list to the efficiency expert that had two names on it--Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith. And that sort of stopped them in their tracks, and shortly thereafter, actually, Steve Jobs bought Pixar for 10 million dollars, but the reason that that story is so powerful, certainly it’s the ultimate case of a boss having employees’ back, but whenever I’ve gone to Pixar the last five or six years, there’s several old-timer employees who tell that story over and over again. It’s sort of, it makes them feel safe to work for somebody who would have their back so much.

Ok. So Polly I’m going to do one final thought and then we can move into discussion.

Polly: Great, I’ve got lots of good questions queued up.

Bob:  My parting thought is that there’s lots of things that distinguish good bosses from bad bosses, and just hearing a seminar, or even doing the job for a couple of years isn’t enough to become a great boss. But if I was going to pick sort of one thing, sort of diagnostic, that every boss should work on, and should know about, is the research on energy. Great research led by Rob Cross, he’s at the University of Virginia, and what he shows over and over again in his research is that the most powerful predictor to whether or not someone gets good performance evaluations, whether or not they get promoted, whether or not they’re surrounded with a network of hard working and energized--and innovative--people, is this energy question. And the question is simply this: After people talk to you, do they have more or less energy?

And this isn’t just an argument for charisma, some of the best energizers are people who simply have people’s backs who motivate them properly and so on; so for the bosses in the audience, that’s the main question I would put out. What happens after people talk to you? Do they have more or less energy? And related to that, of course that key question is, do you know what it is like to work for you? And maybe we should sort of end there and get on to the conversation.

Polly: That’s fantastic, thank you Bob. The questions are coming in fast and furious so, so much food for thought. I’m just going to dive in to make sure we cover as many as possible. I think that energy diagnostic is great one and I just want to underscore you can ask that whether you’re the boss of yourself or of an entire huge organization.

Bob: You could do that anonymously.

Polly: On that note, we’ve got a lot of questions coming in, I’m going to try and put them together. We won’t get to every single one. People are sort of asking this question about “reform.” You talked a lot about how do you rethink your own approach if you’re the boss--how do you become more self-aware, perfectly assertive, etc.. Well, two questions, what if you have a bad boss, is this something you can help from the outside in or is it an inside-out job, and can bad apples be reformed? So, it’s a little bit of a two part question.

Bob: On the reform question. I think it’s very important (and I didn’t emphasize it enough, so I’m glad you asked it) to look at research on both self-fulfilling prophecies and on the assumptions and mindsets that people have about others. There actually is a lot of research for this--if you believe the people you lead can get better, they can get better. If you coach them, put them in situations they will learn and grow. A great example, an example it’s amazing, I’ve talked about in public repeatedly, in Silicon Valley one of my favorite people is Randy Komisar, he wrote the Monk and the Riddle, Plan V, also a venture capitalist, very successful entrepreneur in many ways. Randy openly talks about how when he was young, he was like an overbearing asshole. He describes how by having a key mentor in his life, really helped reform him to become a person who was much more sensitive to the needs of others. His mentor was a guy named Bill Campbell, and he’s well known in the Valley as a great coach and he’s not doing it with Steve Jobs and the Google team, so he’s pretty good. So it is possible to have people reform.

There’s another executive I’ve worked with for a little bit who sort of has described to me how early in his career was a bit of a complete overbearing jerk, and the main lesson he’s learned now, besides being more modest, is that when something goes wrong, it’s all his fault. When something goes good, he gives other people the credit. In all these cases I’d sort of emphasize, it takes a while. If you’re in a situation where you frankly don’t have time to do therapy, you’ve just got to get the job done. That’s where hitting the delete button might be necessary. So yes, it is possible to reform human beings.

I guess on the second part, if you’re working for a bad boss, my response is that you’ve got a power dynamics problem. And if you’re going to start working on reforming your bad boss, you sort of got to do the calculation. What happens if you go over your bosses head and tell your bosses boss and they need help and they’re defective and it’s going to be a while and they need to be on some sort of program. My first advice is don’t do that alone, bring a number of other colleagues with you so you can have some protection, and second of all to realize that you’re at a power disadvantage.

Nonetheless, there are times where that happens and in fact the CEO that I was mentioning and is now reformed and I can’t use his name because somebody will shoot me, I’m under an NDA. That was a case where that really started on a large project that he worked on, the team went to his boss and said we’ve either got to get rid of him or we’ve got to reform him. Now by the way, he’s CEO of the company and is quite well-loved and everybody talks about the reform story. But this was a ten-year adventure. If you’re in a start-up and you don’t have any budget, and you’ve got somebody who is incredibly defective, my argument is that it’s probably better not to wait, and it’s probably better to say bye-bye. A change in behavior does happen but it does not happen instantly.

Polly: That’s one of the other things you get from your book: Just how much of a healthy respect that we also have for the gravity of human nature and how hard it is to change it. A more organizational question, this is really relevant to the challenges we set for ourselves at the MIX. Someone asked a really great question about the biases in so many of our organization are to create standardized metrics, standardized performance review, and to kind of design work top-down to fit those categories versus designing work to get the most productive, effective, happy, satisfied employees. She was asking, how do you get out of this one-size-fits-all approach, and I think a good boss would probably recognize that, so this is a more systemic question.

Bob: So, it is interesting, getting around this seems to be a bit philosophical, a project I just started with my colleague Huggy Rowe, and we’re doing a  book sort of on scaling, hopefully we’re doing a book on scaling. We’re looking at cases where behavior spreads, and we sort of see two models. One model we see if the straight conformity model--you’re going to do it this way, and that’s exactly how it’s done, and sometimes this makes sense. I think the copy exactly and manufacturing Intel, sometimes the way they run the chain like Starbucks or McDonalds--it probably makes some sense, and in all those cases you’re just trying to drive out variation.

But there is also another kind of approach. You see some in Nordstrom. You also see some in Buddhism where the goal is to spread the mindset, and then to trust people to do stuff that are consistent with the point of view. And to me those are two different strategies, in fact we call it the Buddhism versus Catholicism sort of approach. Of course, in Catholicism there’s sort of a push for conformity, of course the Catholic religion is one of the most successful religions in the world, and then there’s Buddhism, where there’s a general mindset and there’s a lot of variation around it. And that’s partly a design decisions, but I would argue to the extent that you are doing work that requires some creativity and some individual judgement, then sort of bringing in he clones is probably not the best approach but managers who are control freaks sometimes just cannot help themselves.

So that’s a great question. And again, that’s a design issue, and I think that the more creativity you want, the lower cost of making a mistake in a lot of ways. That that’s where you want to sort of allow for more variation and push a mindset rather than just conforming to standards.

That’s really helpful. I thought that was a good question, too. But let’s sow that notion of how to deal with a control freak. A lot of folks had questions around that whole issue around being a truly good listener. Which of course was something we were supposed to learn in kindergarten but so few of us actually have. And the sheer fact that being the boss means you get insulated from bad news or the whole picture. So, could you take it down to a more practical level, you’ve got so many stories, whether it’s David Kelley at IDEO or Brad Bird--around what mechanisms or practices or personal disciplines have people set up to sort of combat that.

Bob: I have some stories where I can name people but--I don’t do a lot of this org change stuff, but every now and then I get involved in it, and so we--I was working with someone else--we were working with a CEO--there was constant complaints about him interrupting people, taking all the airtime, a whole array of problems and certainly not listening. And so we did this, we did this sort of trick. We went to one of his meetings, and there was two of us sitting in the back, and we were coding how much he talked, we were coding the number of statements he made versus the questions he asked, and how many interruptions he made.

And the numbers were terrible. It was like some 30-40 interruptions in an hour meeting, he had like 80% of the talk time. He hardly asked any questions, he mostly made statements. And then we did this thing where we dismissed him from the room and we had the other five--his subordinates, basically--guess what the numbers were. And they were almost exactly dead on. And then we bring the guy back in and we say, so we counted interruptions, talking time, statements versus questions--what are your estimates of what you did?

He was completely off. It was 5 interruptions, something like 25 or 30 percent talking time, when he said at least 80. He asked almost no questions. Well, first he got mad at us, frankly, and did a little yelling--not the nicest person you ever met. But there was this sort of dawning awareness, and our understanding is that he actually learned something from this process.

And the reason that I bring this up, if you look at research on self-awareness, the evidence is actually very clear that we human beings are remarkably unselfaware of our behavior in most situations. And, moreover, the more confident we are about something, the less self-aware we are. So if you actually care about changing this--and some people may not care. But having your behavior analyzed and fed back to you is a good way. And so it would be interesting to come back, but what we’ve heard is this guy has actually gotten better, to come back and to count the numbers and give him the feedback. But in that case, let’s look at my two impediments--that’s not exactly flattery, doing that to the boss. That’s also delivering bad news to the boss. I guess that’s a good reason consultants exist, because we can be fired and it doesn’t have a negative effect in the long term usually.

Polly: One good argument for consultants.

You can blame them, you can fire them. But the idea is to have someone from the outside who is safe to do it is a good idea. But this notion of self-awareness really is a big issue. If you care about it, you have to assume you don’t have self-awareness. I also have a second suggestion for bosses who might be insensitive, and bad listeners, but don’t care, but don’t want to change their behavior. To hire what I would call a ‘toxic handler.’ To have somebody sort of like the people who follow the parade and clean up the shit. A good CEO has that. For years in Silicon Valley it was Ray Lane doing it for Larry Ellison which Ray Lane is now on HP’s board, and I think one of the reason that Ray Lane is especially pissed at Larry Ellison for hiring Mark Hurd, was that he had that job for a number of years and was abused some, or at least had to clean up a lot of messes.

Polly: We’re almost to the end, but we still have a lot of active users, so I’m just going to use executive decision-making and push us past the time even though that might be a bad boss activity. Someone just asked a great question about if you were interviewing for a new job, what would you personally ask your prospective boss, to find out if they were a jerk or not.

Bob: Well, Guy Kawasaki and I put together a list somewhere and I’ll send it to you and we can put it up--of things to look for. But the first thing to look for--the odds that your boss is going to--your prospective boss--is going to tell you the truth are not always very high. And this isn’t because of lying so much as for lack of self-awareness. So my main advice is to try to find people who work for the boss, or even better, used to work for the boss, to try to get a reading on that person. That’s the best thing that you can do. Because even the nastiest, most incompetent bosses are capable of doing a wonderful during the sort of ‘dating stage’ of employment. My first comment is, don’t believe it but within the interview, some of the things I look for (but be careful about it) is, one of the first things, are they a credit hog? In every story do they use the word ‘I’ and make it sound like there wasn’t a team doing it all, when there obviously was a team. So that’s one thing I look for. I look for, when they walk down the hall in the organization, how to people respond to them? Are people friendly, or are they like sort of running away from the person.

But those sorts of little things pale in comparison to finding someone or as many of them as possible, and asking them what it was like. And one thing, just as a proviso there, sometimes people who are rough and gruff on the outside are sometimes most loyal to their people, so don’t over react someone who maybe isn’t so smooth interpersonally.

That’s great. I’m going to ask one more question, though we should probably wrap it up. Another question in here, it’s such a good one:  So many companies are obsessed and spend so much money on leadership development programs that in fact, programs that kind of create a little bit of apartheid between managers and leaders, and put the high potentials on the fast track. I might be start loading the question here, but, the question from the audience is, what is the biggest mistake that companies tend to make when they put together these leadership programs.

I don’t know what the biggest mistake is but I guess to follow your loading, there’s an interesting argument made by Jim March, James March is probably the most prestigeous living organizational theorist, he actually almost won the Nobel Prize last time, and Jim March almost always makes this argument, that if you look at what great organizations do, that while we focus on the absolute high-flyers and the star performers, it tends to be the ordinary competence of a large number of managers and employees who are doing remarkably mundane things. And this is even in the best places to work, and so you got to be very careful because doing mundane, less flashy things well, is so important to organizations that driving out those people is really a problem. And I just think sort of like a sign of ordinary competence--being a San Francisco Giants fan--is that I guess we had great pitchers, but they won the world series on the back of a whole bunch of people who are not necessarily superstars but displayed good consistent, ordinary competence, and they also supported each other.

The other problem with those systems is because ordinary competence is important, but sometimes when you glorify superstars so much--and it’s not like superstars aren’t important, I want to say that--but you glorify them so much, what you do is you demoralize and drive out, to use the B players’ logic, the B players who actually are the ones who keep the organization going year after year. To me that’s just an argument also, that if you treat everybody with respect, then the entire enterprise sort of has an advantage. But in real life that’s very difficult to do, because you’ve got like the one rainmaker who brings in all the money, or the person who’s led the most spectacular team. It’s hard not to give them too much money and too much attention sometimes.

Polly: Well, that’s a great way to end, this notion of treating everyone with respect, you talk about in the book this balance of between performance and humanity. I think that too much of capitalism has been the bias of performance at the expense of humanity, and I think you’re doing your part to restore that balance. So Bob, thank you so much for being with us today.

Bob: It’s been fabulous. Always a pleasure.

Polly: And I just wanted to let everyone out there know, because there were so many questions we couldn’t get to. Many, many people wanted to know, would we be able to hear this recording. I know will have it, the MIX will have it. And I just wanted to clarify, the MIX URL is actually, that’s the easiest way to get to us. And we’ll have all that stuff up on our website and on

One quick announcement before we say goodbye, I just wanted to let everybody in the audience know we are sponsoring a series of M-prizes, they’re like X-prizes for management. And right now we’re sponsoring one all around how organizations create communities of passion and unleash human capability. It’s sponsored by the Human Capital Institute and if you submit a story or a hack, you’re in the running for presenting your idea on the stage at the Human Capital Summit in March.  So check our our website at if that’s of interest. And, Gary Hamel, our co-founder will be up online on December 16th doing office hours to teach you how to do a good story or a hack, so that could be kind of fun.

Again, thank you all for coming and a huge thanks to the brilliant Bob Sutton.

Bob: Thanks it was fun!

I just wanted to say thank you on behalf of, to Polly and Bob and to everyone who joined today.

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Editor, writer, and developer. I wear many hats, including the red one. Graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism; long-time interest in all things geeky. Editor of Red Hat Magazine and grizzled industry veteran, including time as an archivist for SunSITE UNC (now and ten-plus years at my current gig. I love:

  • vidya games and other dubious online experiences (Second Life, WoW, DDO, Rift--started out with Zork, IRC, and old-school BBS and MUDD/MOO/etc.

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