Recap: "Building a Better Boss" webcast with Bob Sutton and Polly LaBarre

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Polly LaBarre introduced Bob Sutton for the "Building a Better Boss" webcast in the context of the MIX dream: to build organizations that are fit for the future and fit for human beings. That undertaking isn't the job of any one individual or organization, so the MIX offers a platform for sharing those stories and challenges, called Management Moonshots, which are designed to focus the energies of management innovators.

Listen to the webcast recording or read on for the recap.

In 2007, Bob Sutton's book The No Asshole Rule came out after several other management books he wrote. But this one inspired more email and more feedback than any of the others, leading him to write a second book on the topic, 2010's Good Boss, Bad Boss.

Sutton summarized: a good boss has two features: competence and the ability to treat people with respect. He explained that the main point of the book, which he reached after extensive research, is that great bosses are remarkably self-obsessed.

"If you look at the research, this is a useful half-truth," Sutton said. "There's an enormous amount of evidence that when you're a boss, the people you're in charge of are remarkably focused on your every move--they call this the magnification effect." So good bosses learn to be focused on themselves, not narcissistically, but in a way that makes them stay in tune with their employees' opinions and responses.

That sounds simple, but there's an array of forces that make it much more difficult than it seems on the surface. Sutton calls it the "toxic tandem." People pay more attention to the people who lead them than the leaders pay them in return. There's a large body of research--about 200 peer-reviewed studies--that show when people have power over others, three things happen:

  1. Those with the power focus more on their own needs and concerns.
  2. They focus less on the needs and actions of others.
  3. They act like the rules don't apply to them.

"Even though the best bosses are in tune with what it's like to work for them, it's something they have to accomplish," Sutton said. "They have to fight the basic aspects of being a human being."

Eighty percent of Americans think they have a pretty good rapport with their bosses. Very few (and decreasing) feel they have a boss who bullies them. So what are the hallmarks of the "in tune" bosses?


The best bosses are generally rated average by their employees on terms like "competitive" and "aggressive," as well as "passive" and "submissive." People who are moderately assertive but not doormats are the most respected as bosses. They know which people need to be pushed and which need to be left alone.

In addition, bosses who are wimps are usually aware of their weakness. The "overbearing jerks," Sutton said, are generally clueless about the way they come across.

Sutton offered this Tommy Lasorda quote as an analogy:

"I believe 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."

Sutton noted that in particular, when people do creative work, the evidence is that close supervision results in the boss rating the quality of the work, but in reality the employee works more slowly and doesn't work as creatively because of the fear of doing poorly in front of the boss.


"On one hand, good bosses convince other people they're in charge," Sutton said. "But there's a danger there, because you might start believing your own bullshit too much."

The best bosses come close to overconfidence but retain enough humility to keep from crossing the line into arrogance. It's the attitude of wisdom: the courage to act on what you know with just enough doubt about your assumptions.

Related to this is research on flattery, which shows that we say we don't like it, but in fact, we respond well, liking the flatterer more, even when we recognize that it's false flattery.

People don't tell bosses bad news because they suffer negative consequences. It can be very difficult for bosses to get the truth. CEOs will gather and talk about how difficult it is to be CEOs because nobody will tell them the truth, particularly where they're doing badly.

One of the best ways for a boss to work through this problem is to create a situation where people can fight as if they are right and listen if they are wrong. "The best bosses make it safe to fight like crazy over ideas, in an atmosphere of mutual respect," Sutton said.

You shouldn't fight in the early stages of ideas, though. You have to get them all out before the shootdown begins. On the other end, the fighting should stop after the decision is made. Not doing so undermines implementation. Intel puts this in motto form as, "Disagree and then commit."

Eliminate the negative

If a boss could choose only one job, it should be to eliminate the negative rather than highlight the stars.

Over and over again, regardless of reward and compensation systems, the best companies and best leaders push people who were not only great individual performers, but who also help others succeed. They're also aggressive about eliminating the rotten apples.

Men's Wearhouse, a US men's clothing retailer, has a team selling philosophy. The sale in the store is not by person, but by team. An employee in one location was undermining the sales environment by stealing sales, and he was fired, despite being the top salesperson. Afterwards, that store's sales increased 30%.

Bad is stronger than good. In the workplace, if you have a negative interaction with a coworker, it has five times the effect of a positive interaction. This "5 to 1" rule applies to personal relationships as well. It takes five positive experiences to negate the effects of one bad one.

Serve as a human shield

Good bosses protect their employees from everything from harm and distractions to simple indignities and idiocy.

Most people have had the experience of ineffective or useless meetings. Will Wright of Spore and The Sims has an employee-centered method for them. He uses an artist employee as the "canary in the coal mine," ending meetings when the "canary" raises his hand.

Parting thought

Sutton concluded with a question for bosses: How do people feel after talking to you? Do they have more or less energy?

Research at the University of Virginia shows that the answer to this question is the most powerful predictor for good performance.

Do you know what it feels like to work for you?

About Bob Sutton

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, where he is Co-director of the Center for Work, Technology, and Organization, an active researcher and cofounder in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, and a cofounder and active member of the “,” a multi-disciplinary program that teaches and spreads “design thinking.” He has published over 150 articles, in places ranging from peer-reviewed journals, to the Harvard Business Review, to Esquire magazine. His books include Weird Ideas That Work: 11 ½ Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation; The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Firms Turn Knowledge into Action (with Jeffrey Pfeffer); Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management (also with Jeffrey Pfeffer); and The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. His new book is the national bestseller Good Boss, Badd Boss: How to Be the Best—and Learn from the Worst. Bob blogs at Work Matters.

About Polly LaBarre

Polly LaBarre is a bestselling author, speaker, and all-around storyteller who has contributed to the business conversation for fifteen years. Currently, she is the editorial director of the MIX, a pioneering open innovation project dedicated to reinventing management for the 21st century. Polly is the co-author of Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win (which The Economist named a “Book of the Year” and called “a pivotal work in the tradition of In Search of Excellence and Good to Great” and has since been published in 16 countries around the world). She was a member of the original team of Fast Company magazine, where she was senior editor for the better part of a decade. More recently, Polly has served as a business and innovation correspondent for CNN.

Listen to the webcast recording.

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Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.

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