The Ways of the Good Boss and the Bad Boss

Matt Harvey, Stanford University December 22, 2010

The relationship between boss and employee can be filled with respect and integrity. It can also be filled with tension and conflict.  And for some, the relationship is filled with dread, acrimony, and dysfunction. Stanford Management Science and Engineering Professor Robert Sutton studies the dynamics and behaviors at work in these unique relationships. Sutton is a bestselling author whose latest book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, examines the actions and behaviors of bosses that become capable and respected leaders and the actions of those that, well… don’t. During Sutton’s recent lecture at the DFJ ETL seminar series, he discussed a number of issues relating to boss and employee interaction.

Beware of Power Poisoning

“When you become successful is when you should be especially wary you’re going to turn into an idiot.”

Prof. Robert Sutton

According to Sutton, the most reliable way to turn a human being into a jerk is to put them into a position of power over another human being. Invariably, three things begin to happen in this situation, which Sutton describes collectively as “power poisoning”: 1) The person in power focuses more on their own needs and concerns, 2) The person in power focuses less on the needs and concerns of others, and 3) The person in power begins to act like the rules don’t apply to them. Sutton warns that when a boss or manager (or CEO, for that matter) reaches a great moment of achievement or success, this is the same moment when the boss is at greatest risk of succumbing to power poisoning. In this video clip, Sutton describes these points in greater detail.

Hallmarks of a Good Boss

Sutton explains that good bosses diligently strive to remain in tune with their employees. Beyond building a stronger bond with employees, staying in tune makes addressing problem issues easier to do. Another hallmark of a great boss is being able to modulate one’s assertiveness. If a manager has the ability to turn up, or turn down, their assertiveness level in a given situation, the behavior is looked upon from employees as being a positive attribute. Knowing when to push and when to back off on employees is a necessary tool for a good boss.

In this area, there are particular dangers when managing employees who do creative work. According to Sutton, current research indicates that managers who relentlessly ping employees with questions in a constant state of evaluation, inhibit a creative employee’s willingness to try out or suggest new ideas. In a positive example of a great boss, Sutton cites IDEO founder David Kelley as “the master of management by walking out of the room.” When a meeting begins to go well, Kelley will step out of the room to avoid being a distracting authority figure. While traditional management theory may call for a boss to stay in the face of employees, Sutton suggests this method may not always create the best results. Sutton discuss these points in this video clip.

Listening for the Truth

Employees have many reasons and incentives to not tell bosses the truth. This can be true in all types of interactions, on all types of subjects. One issue of concern is a concept that Sutton describes as the “mum effect.” Sutton explains this effect as, “when people deliver us bad news, we like them less.” Somewhat conversely, Sutton also says that flattery affects how we interact with and feel about others. He explains that the research on flattery shows that not only does it work, but false flattery works too. In the clip below, Sutton shares how these issues come together to keep the truth from reaching bosses.

Watch the entire Bob Sutton seminar at eCorner.