Belated thoughts on the “Building a Better Boss” webcast with Bob Sutton |

Belated thoughts on the “Building a Better Boss” webcast with Bob Sutton

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Just last week, I realized I still hadn’t made time to listen to the webcast some fellow contributors hosted with Bob Sutton last October. I’ve been an avid reader of Bob’s blog, Work Matters, and it’s hard not to like a guy who writes a book called “The No-Asshole Rule.”

Missing the webcast was most definitely a regrettable oversight, but one quickly remedied today.

If you’ve ever had a less-than-stellar boss—or if you are now a manager—pull up a chair and turn on your speakers. You don’t want to miss this one.

Rotten apples

Many of Bob’s stories brought up my own buried memories of bosses past and coworker commiseration. For example, here's one anecdote he tells:

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% compared to teams that don’t have them.

And there are 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...

...One of the things [Baird has] 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: [t]hey put their self-interest ahead of their colleagues, ahead of the organization, and ahead of customers.

It’s somewhere around 2004 or 2005, and I’m having drinks with a few friends after work. Several beers in, one woman begins lamenting the way her department is slowly turning into a haven for idiots. That’s when Greg reaches across the table for her cocktail napkin and begins sketching a picture that vaguely represents a box diagram.

This, Greg tells us, is the key to understanding why you can’t hire a single idiot (and I’m sure he’d gladly expand that to include assholes). Lines begin appearing and connecting boxes as he speaks. “First, someone makes a small mistake. They accidentally hire an idiot.” Everyone nods.

“Management quickly realizes they’ve hired an idiot, but they won’t fire him. Within a short period of time, several of his competent coworkers quit, and he’s promoted by default.” (There’s appreciative snorting and harrumphing from those listening.)

Greg continues to sketch, and soon several boxes appear below the idiot box.

“Now he has the power to go out and hire more idiots.” The boxes are multiplying rapidly now.

“Soon, you have an entire wing of idiots in your organizational chart.”

We stare at the napkin soberly.

But there’s hope. Greg begins to move several boxes into the idiot wing. “This can actually become a strategic move,” he says, “If you move over a few idiots from other departments.”

With flourish, he draws a giant X over the idiot wing. “Then you fire the whole team.”

If I may borrow Greg’s theory, assholes operate much like idiots within the organization. I wonder how many Paul Purcells there are in the world of management, who have the courage to ask pointed questions about more than mere skills or experience.


Another recollection came to me when I heard this great insight from the webcast:

James March is probably the most prestigious living organizational theorists. [And he] 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…

[O]rdinary 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.

It’s 2007, and I’m having lunch with an MBA friend who I’ll call Jason. Having worked together in the past, I know Jason’s a fantastic boss. He gives his sales team plenty of leeway in deciding how they should pitch products and prioritize their clients and schedules. He’s the slow and steady type, Mr. Tortoise, but quarter after quarter he leads his team to produce reliable, respectable numbers. He’s your classic B-player.

Today Jason’s frustrated, having been passed up for yet another promotion in favor of what he calls a “Big Hat, No Cattle” guy. (Yup, he’s from Texas.) This other guy hogs the credit for his team’s efforts, kisses up to everyone, does very little actual work, and spends his time calling meetings to boost his visibility. Before he was promoted to management, he was a sales guy who made huge numbers promising the moon to clients—and he lost huge numbers over time, when those clients realized he was unable to deliver.

“Why don’t you just leave?” I ask.

Jason looks at me ruefully and says, “Because it’s been like this everywhere I’ve worked. I’ll be a middle manager forever, because I don’t want to be a selfish jerk, and most companies seem to be looking for that when it comes time for promotions.”

Taking a 360° view of yourself

Back in the webcast, Bob delivered yet another great story that I could relate to:

[T]here were constant complaints about [a CEO] 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 were two of us sitting in the back, and we were counting how much he talked, we were counting 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…

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 un-self-aware of our behavior in most situations. And, moreover, the more confident we are about something, the less self-aware we are.”

It’s 2003, and I’m back in college, working a temporary receptionist job to make ends meet. It’s a small regional office with just two support guys, Dan and John, helping the field techs via phone. There’s more work than time, and they’re moving into a new office building. John instructs the moving company to put his desk in the corner office. Dan mutters to me that it’s just typical behavior for John. “He thinks he’s the top dog.”

Or as Bob Sutton would say, he’s the kind of guy who eats the last cookie. And worse, he’s completely unaware.

Officially Dan and John are equals, but John has told me several times that he’s being groomed for a big role in the company. Today, I half-jokingly ask him if he and Dan had to wrestle for the office with a view. He grins and says, “It comes with the territory.”

Dan’s frustration is evident and hanging awkwardly in the air, so I bring it up later with John.

John looks at me patiently. “Let’s not be petty, now,” he says reasonably. “Look, I’ve been here for six months and already the techs ask for me when they need help. Dan’s a great guy, but he’s not going places. He’s happy to come to work, earn his paycheck, and go home.”

Becoming a better boss

Bob has many suggestions for how to reform and improve your jerk boss (or self), offering advice on how to deal with what he terms “bossholes.” His book is a great one for those seeking more transparency in their organization, particularly around performance and promotions.

So have another look at that webcast. If you’re like me, as you’re listening you’ll be connecting Bob’s stories to your own. And if you’re really brave, you might pass along the link to the bosshole you know.


About the author

Rebecca Fernandez - Rebecca Fernandez is a Principal Program Manager at Red Hat, leading projects to help the company scale its open culture. She's an Open Organization Ambassador, contributed to The Open Organization book, and maintains the Open Decision Framework. She is interested in the intersection of open source principles and practices, and how they can transform organizations for the better.