Interview with Bob Sutton

Something happens to people when they become bosses. What is it — and why does it matter to employees, shareholders, and customers?

The short answer is that, when human-beings are in a position of wielding power over others, at least three rather scary things happen:

  1. They become more focused on their own needs and wants.
  2. They become less focused on the needs of others.
  3. They act like the rules don’t apply to them.

I call this power poisoning, and if you want to learn more about it, check out this rather scary article by UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, one of the leading researchers here.  In addition, to complicate matters further for bosses, there is the asymmetry of attention that is well-documented  — while power makes people more oblivious to subordinates, those same subordinates respond by becoming hyper-vigilant to their superior’s every word and deed.  In other words, bosses don’t devote much attention to their underlines, but their underlings devote A LOT of attention to scrutinizing them.  I call this the “toxic tandem” because it creates a huge obstacle to the success of bosses, because being aware of how their moves are seen and responded to by followers (and making adjustments in response) is a hallmark of great bosses – they are in tune with the people they lead.

This matters to shareholders and customers, not just employees, because the ability of senior executives to lead and be in tune with their immediate subordinates is one of the hallmarks of effective companies.  There is growing evidence that CEOs have much of their influence on performance through the teams they assemble, a theme you can see in everything from researcher on semiconductor startups to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fantastic book about Lincoln, Team of Rivals.

Throughout the book, you emphasize the dual nature of a great boss – she has to be competent and benevolent, to combine performance and humanity.  Yet it seems that when push comes to shove inside an organization, performance and competence always rule — frequently at the expense of benevolence and humanity. Is this inevitable? Or is there something we can do about it?

No doubt, in the short-term, there are times when to get the project out, to please an important client, or to cut costs, the best bosses (and organizations) are wise to put performance ahead of people.  But if it is all performance all the time, humanity, dignity, and respect be dammed, a host of bad things happen to followers and organizations –which reflect badly on the boss too.

The first is that when bosses show open disregard for the happiness, growth, and financial well-being of their people, then people start withdrawing emotionally, are less willing to go the extra mile to help the boss and organization, and the best people — those with most options – leave the company. This is clear from studies by Gallup, and I also wonder if the reportedly poor morale at HP (see here and here for some imperfect evidence) in response to Mark Hurd and  (insiders tell me) the tough and sometimes nasty “mini-Marks” he apparently surrounded himself with figured in the board’s decision to send him packing.  When I arrived at Stanford as an engineering professor about 25 years ago, HP was THE employer of choice for our students; now it is viewed as a lousy and oppressive place to work – a place you go if you have no other options.  So from a purely financial standpoint, there is plenty of evidence that treating people with respect and dignity is financially wise.

The second problem with focusing on all money, performance, and winning all the time is that people are damaged.  They become bitter, exhausted, and the minds go stale.  Also, a short-term financial perspective – and nothing else — means that people aren’t given the chance to learn and develop more skills on the job, which hurts both them and their organizations.

From a practical standpoint, however, the best bosses realize that “time was invented because you can’t do everything all at once.” They push for performance and put humanity on the back burner at times, but, as IDEO founder David Kelley explains in Good Boss, Bad Boss, they build-up humanity credits or what he calls “love points” by doing things like taking out time to have a little fun or give people assignments that may not be especially profitable to the company, but are of great intrinsic interest to the person in question – either to “make-up” for a period of dull or stressful work  — or to build up some points to burn later.

Certainly, there are times when there is a lovely intersection between work that simultaneously enhances performance and is intrinsically satisfying, so this kind of balancing act isn’t necessary.  I think, for example, of the reactions of nurses when doctors make it safe for them to question diagnoses or point out mistakes – it makes the work more challenging and they feel more respected, and patient care improves too.  Or I think of Asa Dotzler at Mozilla, which produces the open source browser Firefox.  Asa leads their open source marketing efforts, and loves what he does so much that he vibrates with excitement about it – indeed, he did the job for free as a member of the open source community for several years before they hired him.   But, given the realities of business and the needs and demands of clients and customers, it simply isn’t possible to strike a healthy balance at any given moment in time, and so taking a long time perspective and keeping in mind David Kelley’s “Love-Money’ balancing act is a hallmark of good bosses.

I was quite taken — as well as persuaded — by your emphasis on great bosses piling up “small wins.” Why are those so powerful? And why are they often overlooked?

I stole the idea from Karl Weick’s delightful and evidence-based American Psychologist article on “Small Wins.”  His basic argument is that big hairy goals alone – despite their emotional appeal – can backfire because when people are faced tackling them, the challenge (whether it be a huge goal like stopping global warming or something more modest like raising your team’s performance by 25%) can seem so overwhelming that it causes people to freak out and freeze-up.   So Weick suggests that it is often more constructive to break the problem into bite size pieces, into more modest and actionable “mere problems” as that lowers the anxiety and directs action in a focused way… and as the small wins pile up, progress is made toward the big hairy goal.

In the book, I use Zen and the classic little book Zen in the Art of Archery to make the point.  When Herrigel studied under a Zen master in Japan, he was taught to devote little or no energy to thinking about hitting the target.  Instead he was taught to focus on the little steps such as stringing the bow, selecting the arrow, placing it in the bow, drawing it back, and the release.  By doing so, Herrigiel learned to take more intrinsic joy from each little step and – by the way – he also started hitting the target more often.

Early in the book, you emphasize that good bosses “take control” — that they “take steps to magnify the illusion that they’re in control.” Then you give some tactics for doing this — interrupting but not letting one’s self be interrupted, talking more than others, crossing your arms, sitting at the head of the table and so on. To me, this seems like being just a minor a**hole — or perhaps stepping right to the very edge of being an full-fledged one. Have I gotten it wrong?

There is a difference between being an asshole – treating people like dirt and putting your needs ahead of your followers, peers, customers and so on – and doing things to convince the people you lead that you are competent and able to link your actions to changes that inspire them and help them succeed.   Leadership is a weird thing because there is lots of evidence (from research on “the romance of leadership”) that most of us give leaders too much credit and blame when things wrong – but to make things even weirder, leaders who take little steps to show they are in charge and in control (whether they are or not) can create a self-fulfilling prophecy and increase the amount of control they have.  And, yes, I felt compelled to draw on the evidence to show that what seemed like borderline asshole moves – interrupting people, crossing your arms, sitting at the head of the table, and even an occasional flash anger – does help convince people you are in charge. BUT as I suggest in Chapter 3 on wisdom, the best bosses dance on the edge of overconfidence but have enough humility to seek and react to contrary opinions and to admit their mistakes when things go wrong (and to explain what they learned and how they are using it to make and implement a better strategy, set of procedures, product features, or whatever).  I like to quote Tom Petty here – the best bosses are “confident but not really sure.”

Again, we see that bosses walk a tightrope, in this case, striking a balance between confidence and humility. They act on the best knowledge they have right now, but are open to updating when new and better information comes along.  Indeed, one the titles I considered for the book was “Top Dog on a Tightrope,” which was suggested by Marc Hershon after he read some early chapters (Mark is a very talented guy. Among many other things such as being a stand-up comic, writing a lot screenplays, and co-authoring I Hate People, he named the Blackberry and P&G Swiffer).

You write that two of the most powerful antidotes to being a complete jerk are embarrassment and pride.  How can regular employees use these elixirs to make a bad boss better?

Pride is easier because offers compliments or crediting your boss for making your job easier, mentoring you, or treating you well can be done backstage or in public.  But the embarrassment thing is more risky and requires more finesse.  One of my favorite asshole stories, which ends the chapter called “squelch your inner bosshole” tells an intriguing story I heard from the guy next to me when I was standing in line at the UPS store – he admitted that he had been a flaming jerk at work until one of his subordinates (who asked to be transferred to another team because he couldn’t take it any longer) suggested that the he imagine that his 14 year-old son was standing behind him, watching his every move.  The boss told me that the imagined embarrassment of acting like a mean-spirited jerk helped him become a more civilized boss.

I would also add that some bosses are so incompetent, mean-spirited or both that clever and frustrated employees sometimes set embarrassing traps for them, with the aim of “outing” their flaws.   I describe one case of “malicious compliance” where an engineer revealed his overbearing and unskilled bosses incompetence by designing a product exactly as his boss (a senior vice-president) insisted – which turned out awful.  When the CEO started getting angry at the manager, the manager responded with careful documentation that showed he was doing exactly as ordered –the VP got canned and the manager and his team then went on to develop a much better (and commercially successful) product.  So this wasn’t just embarrassment to punish a bad boss, it cost the guy his job.

What’s the most important question a boss can ask himself?

“Do I know what it feels like to work for me? Or am I living in a fool’s paradise?”   This question is so important because, as I’ve already emphasized, the key to being a good boss is being in tune with how the people you lead respond to your moods and moves.

This sounds trite until you look at research by David Dunning and others on expertise — while all bosses are prone to overestimate their skills (including being in tune with their followers), it turns out that the more inept that people are at something, the more prone they are to hold unrealistically positive views of their own skills and inability – so inept people are especially prone to defective self-awareness.  Indeed, Dunning’s research shows that only one group of people are prone to underestimate their skills – those who have the highest ability levels.  So, when you add this general human tendency to the research on power poisoning, it takes considerable self-discipline to avoid living in a fool’s paradise if you are boss – and the worst bosses are most prone to delusion. This is why learning to listen, to spot subtle cues, to encourage people to give you negative feedback (and perhaps even to hire a coach or work with a mentor who doesn’t hesitate to point out your flaws, give you negative feedback, and help you overcome and compensate for your weaknesses.)

Name two great bosses and two bossholes Pink Blog readers might recognize. Don’t be shy.

Let’s start with the bossholes.  My least favorite CEO in recent years was Carly Fiorina because I witnessed her lead changes that helped destroy one of the most constructive organizational cultures I have ever encountered.   I worked closely with a couple HP insiders during much her reign (and before that) and saw the spirit of that wonderful place die under her leadership – it wasn’t all her fault, other forces were in place.  But a CEO who does massive layoffs and then buys (actually leases) a very fancy new corporate jet for herself ought to be ashamed.  She was infamous for “shooting the messenger” and for being impatient with implementation – for example (very similar to President Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech) Carly announced that the merger integration with Compaq was complete and successful to the horror of people on her senior team who still believed that it wasn’t nearly done. (Indeed, for example, Mark Hurd took out millions and millions of IT costs when he took charge that were created by the unfinished merger.)  Carly’s unfortunate experience shows that, to be an effective leader, you not only need some wisdom, you also need the right experience.  Note that she never had profit and loss responsibility in any prior job before coming to work at HP (this was reported by Fortune and I have confirmed it from other sources).  Right around the Compaq merger, a very knowledgeable Silicon Valley insider who knew Carly well said something I thought was a joke, something like “Carly ought to go into politics; she gives great speeches and there really aren’t any tangible deliverables.”   As most readers know, now Carly is running for Senate in California.

To pick a second bosshole, I believe the current champion here might be Dov Charney, founder and CEO of the American Apparel clothing empire, which is the largest clothing manufacturer operating in the U.S.  He has done good things like paying employees high wages and providing them and their families health insurance, and sells hip clothing and developed a great brand.  They operate 260 stores in 19 countries.  But piles of evidence  of strange boss behavior and bad financial performance now hound him and the company.  Although several sexual harassment law suits against Charney were dropped, he admits holding a staff meeting naked except for the sock on his penis, walking around the office in just underpants and referring to fashion models as “sluts.”  The tales of such antics in combination with deepening financial losses, plummeting stock price, and Deloitte’s concerns about accounting irregularities have this once high flying firm in an apparent death spiral.   Apparently, among other flaws, Mr. Charney suffered from – or perhaps enjoyed – one of the most severe cases of power poisoning in recent times – especially the lack of inhibition and impulsiveness that are often part of the syndrome.

To turn to the good bosses, I am a huge fan Pixar’s Brad Bird, Academy Award winning Director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille.  I was part of a group that interviewed him for the McKinsey Quarterly a couple years back, and was taken with him.  But I am in even bigger fan after talking to multiple people at Pixar and Disney studios about him last week.  They love him and love how he encourages open argument and makes it so fun – and as one executive who worked with Brad through these two films told me “Everyone who works with him once can’t wait to do it again.”  And people who work with him are simply blown away by his technical skill: John Walker, who was a Producer on both films, went on and on with examples of Bard’s amazing technical expertise.

Finally, my favorite CEO of a large U.S. company in recent years was AG Lafley, who led Procter & Gamble for decade.  He is polite, persistent, and instilled constructive values throughout the company. Like Brad Bird, people loved working with him because he was so smart, supportive, and honorable.  And I love his management philosophy: “Keep thing Sesame Street simple,” especially in light of the contrast to the deeply complex business practices used by Wall Street firms that led to the meltdown.

** Buy Good Boss, Bad Boss at Amazon,, Borders, IndieBound, or 8CR

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