Are You a Good Boss or a ‘Bosshole’

"The Boss" nametag
"The Boss" nametag

What makes a good boss?

Most of us would say someone who inspires us, recognizes and acknowledges good work, someone who holds us accountable for our decisions and someone who is fair but sets a high bar.

It's very hard to find a truly good boss. Most bosses are mediocre at best. (Note to my boss, I'm not talking about YOU - I'm talking all those other bosses!)

And most of us get it, it is extremely difficult to be a boss in these harsh economic times, but it doesn't mean you get a free pass to be mediocre. The American worker is miserable- truly miserable and in need of some inspiration.

What better time than now for those truly great bosses to stand up and lead us to the promised land? A new book may help serve as the boss's bible.

"Good Boss, Bad Boss How to Be the Best ... and Learn from the Worst" was inspired by the reaction Robert Sutton got from those who read his blockbuster bestseller, “The No Asshole Rule.”

He got a boatload of emails, calls, and interview requests. There was something about that book that truly struck a nerve. At the heart of most of the conversations Sutton had was a recurring theme about the same character – THE BOSS!!!!!!!!!!!

Sutton says there’s a lot of hurt, anger, frustration and pain in the workplace and he wants to help make the work place a better place.


He's hoping to do that with "Good Boss, Bad Boss."Sutton is a great read delivering sound, actionable advice in a style that is easy to read. But don’t think that Sutton’s book is for lightweights – this book is only for those who are stuck with a bad boss and need help and for those who reallywant to stay or become a great boss.

As he puts it, “Greatness comes only through dogged effort, doing many small things well, getting up after each hard knock, and helping our people press forward at every turn. The best bosses don’t ride into town, save the day with a bold move or two, declare victory, and then rest on their laurels. There is no final victory.”

Click on the next page to read a special Guest Author Blog by Robert Sutton.



Guest Author Blog by: Robert Sutton author of Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the Best…. and Learn from the Worst

Good Bosses Know What It Feels Like to Work Them — But Bad Bosses Live in a Fool’s Paradise

One thing that makes organizations dysfunctional is that bosses so often lack self-awareness. They're out of touch with their effect on their people and not in tune with what it feels like to work for them.

But is it really their fault?

Doing the research for Good Boss, Bad Boss over the past few years), I've come to appreciate why it's so hard to lead a team. This is a blog post and not a dissertation, so I can't tell the whole story.

But here are three of the biggest, and most deeply human, forces conspiring to make people in charge so clueless.

1. Bosses are, like everyone, self-deluding.

Guest Author Blog
Guest Author Blog

All human beings tend to be poor judges of their own actions and accomplishments. We suffer from "self-enhancement bias," whereby we believe we are "better than the rest" and have a hard time accepting or remembering any evidence to the contrary.

In one study, for example, 90% of drivers reported that they had "above average" driving skills. In a US College Board survey of nearly a million high school seniors, 70% claimed "above average" leadership skills; only 2 % believed they were "below average." Worse yet, research by Cornell's David Dunning and his colleaguesshows that it's the most deeply incompetent people who make the most inflated self-assessments.

"The leader turns remarkably oblivious to what the underlings do, and instead, attends to personal needs and desires — and to the next rung of the hierarchy, focusing on what the next higher boss is saying and doing." -Author, Good Boss, Bad Boss, Robert Sutton

Bosses aren't immune to this.

It turns out that followers, peers, superiors, and customers consistently provide better information about a boss's strengths, weaknesses, and quirks than the boss him or herself. This showed up in a study of naval officers, where peer ratings were found to be good predictors of which officers would receive early promotions — but self-evaluations did not. Fancy yourself as the rare boss who sees yourself as others do?

Beware: most people are confident that they make more accurate self-assessments than their peers. Unfortunately, that's just another form of self-aggrandizement.

2. Bosses are naturally heedless of subordinates.

When someone is put in a position of power, subordinate members of the group watch that individual very closely for any sign of a shift in behavior or mood. (Research shows this begins with baboons, as this postexplains).

But the attention is not reciprocated.

To the contrary, the leader turns remarkably oblivious to what the underlings do, and instead, attends to personal needs and desires — and to the next rung of the hierarchy, focusing on what the next higher boss is saying and doing.

Elsewhere, I've called this combination of overattentive subordinates and inattentive bosses "the toxic tandem." As Princeton psychologist Susan Fiskediscovered in her workplace research (reported in American Psychologist), "Secretaries know more about their bosses than vice versa; graduate students know more about their advisors than vice versa." Fiske suggests this happens because (like our fellow primates), "People pay attention to those who control their outcomes. In an effort to predict and possibly influence what is going to happen to them, people gather information about those with power."


3. Bosses are insulated from reality.

Guest Author Blog
Guest Author Blog

Psychological research shows that people routinely "shoot the messenger." Bearers of bad news, even when they aren't responsible for it in any sense, tend to be blamed and to have negative feelings directed toward them. The result is the "Mum Effect": subordinates with good survival instincts soften bad news to make it sound better, or avoid passing it along to their bosses at all. Therefore, in a steep hierarchy it is a happier and happier story that reaches the top ranks.

Our most disturbing example came courtesy of physics Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman after his investigationof the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. He said he'd asked a group of engineers to estimate the probability that the shuttle's main engine would fail, and their estimates ranged from 1-in-200 to 1-in-300. But when he asked the head of NASA to make the failure-rate estimate, the answer he got was 1-in-100,000. Feynman pointed to this as an illustration of managerial isolation from reality, a problem he believed to be rampant throughout NASA.

"One thing that makes organizations dysfunctional is that bosses so often lack self-awareness." -Author, Good Boss, Bad Boss, Robert Sutton

When you consider just these three tendencies, you begin to appreciate how easy it is to be a terrible boss.

At the same time, you glimpse one of the keys to leading well. A hallmark of good bosses — and I define those as bosses who get stellar performance from their teams while promoting dignity and respect — is that they are highly cognizant of these dangers. They realize their followers watch, analyze, and react to just about everything they say and do. And they devote real energy to reading expressions, noting behaviors, and making constant adjustments to help their people think independently and express themselves without reservation.


IDEO is perhaps the leading innovation consulting firm in the world. IDEO Chairman and founder David Kelley, a boss I have studied, worked with, and watched for years, strikes me as someone who is very aware of the effect of his presence.

Although no one would accuse him of being pushy or arrogant, he realizes that because he is the boss — and even beyond that, a renowned design thinker and industry leader — too much of the attention in a room threatens to come his way.

His mere presence can stifle his people's contributions.

I have seen David do a very clever thing to counter this. In meetings he takes part in, whether they are brainstorming sessions, client meetings, or a work-related gatherings of any kind, he'll start at the front of the room, as expected. But once he's covered the preliminaries — introducing people, setting the tone and goals — he pulls in others to talk and lead, and moves to the side of the room. He jumps back in if the ideas stop flowing, or if some uncomfortable moment needs to be covered, perhaps by telling a little story or joke, but if he's confident the meeting is going well, he drifts to the back of the room and remains silent. Usually, well before the meeting is over, he is able to slip out without saying good-bye.

Of course, David Kelley doesn't leave because he has some higher priority — he does so because he wants the meeting to be as productive as possible. His brilliance is that he is so intensely in tune with the context he has set, and how his words, actions, and little facial expressions affect the room. He keeps making adjustments with the goal of getting the group interacting so well that his presence becomes an unnecessary distraction.

It's a simple example, but a telling one. I would argue that, in general, the best bosses are people who realize that they are prone to suffering blind spots about themselves, their colleagues, and problems in the organization — and who work doggedly to overcome them.

Click here to read an excerpt of GOOD BOSS, BAD BOSS

Robert Sutton is a Professor and Organizational Psychologist at Stanford University. This post draws on central themes in his new book Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the Best…. and Learn from the Worst (Business Plus, 2010). His personal blog is Work Matters.

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks