Book Review: Good Boss, Bad Boss

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In an email exchange, Professor Robert I. Sutton (author of the highly acclaimed book, “The No Asshole Rule”) asked me if I was interested in seeing a “galley” of his upcoming book, “Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst” (due out September 2010). According to Dr. Sutton, “galleys” are “essentially cheap paperback versions of the book that usually have a few typos and may need a little more editing” sent as advanced copies “to the press and other opinion leaders.” I responded that I’m eagerly anticipating the arrival of his book and would love to have an advance copy.

I am a fan of Dr. Robert Sutton. I follow his blog, Work Matters regularly and enjoy his writing style. Because I’m fascinated by workplace psychology (I write the WorkplacePsychology.Net blog), I am always interested in articles and books that have a good mixture of research and practical writing and applications. In other words, cut through the bull and tell me what I need to know and make sure that what I need to know is backed by evidence and research. Last year, a book I read (“The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It” by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath) met this practical application + evidence-based criteria.

Here’s a little history for those not familiar with Dr. Sutton’s previous book. “The No Asshole Rule” is about the harm done by jerks or assholes in the workplace and what to do to survive working with or for an asshole and how organizations can get rid of or better yet, screen these individuals out before hiring them in the first place. As he explained, while words like bullies, jerks, creeps, tyrants, etc. could have been used, the word “asshole best captures the fear and loathing I have for these nasty people” (Sutton, 2007, p. 1).

Ok, let’s move on to “Good Boss, Bad Boss.”

Dr. Sutton says that as more people shared with him their asshole stories, about working and dealing with assholes (as a result of reading or hearing about “The No Asshole Rule”), he realized that everything came back to one central figure — the boss. It was from the countless workplace asshole stories and the desire to share how to be a skilled boss or how to work for one that led Dr. Sutton to write “Good Boss, Bad Boss.”

The book cites a University of Florida study that found employees with abusive bosses were much more likely than others to slow down or make errors on purpose (30% vs. 6%) [the technical term for this is “counterproductive work behavior”]. When you purposefully slow down your work, it’s called production deviance. Employees with abusive bosses also hide from their bosses (27% vs. 4%), not put in maximum effort (33% vs. 9%), and feign being sick (29% vs. 4%).

“Good Boss, Bad Boss” is about the best bosses and what they do. It’s not about incompetent or even mediocre bosses. As Dr. Sutton puts it, it doesn’t matter if you’re a boss whose team brought in the highest sales number or a principal of an award-winning school, if you treat people badly, you don’t deserve to be called a great boss.

Good bosses need to have the right mindsets by embracing five beliefs:

(1) Following Lasorda’s Law? Finding the balance between over-managing (or micromanaging) and under-managing. Good bosses understand when to exert more control vs. when to back off, and when to coach vs. when to discipline.

(2) Got Grit? Good bosses think of managing in terms of a marathon, not like a sprint. Effective bosses can communicate a sense of urgency without treating things like one long emergency.

(3) Small Wins? Having long-term goals is important, but good bosses also know that the day-to-day efforts and small accomplishments also matter. The best bosses are those who can break down problems into bite-size, achievable pieces for their employees.

(4) Beware the Toxic Tandem? The Toxic Tandem is made up of the boss’s obliviousness (to what their employees need, say, and do) and self-centered ways and the idea that followers closely watch their boss’s words and actions.

(5) Got Their Backs? Good bosses protect and fight for their employees. These bosses take the heat (from upper management) when their employees screw up.

Good bosses have their fingers (and ears) on the pulse of what their employees are thinking, feeling, and acting. These bosses know that to be successful they have to spend time and energy to reading and responding to employees’ feelings and actions. Good bosses also possess self-awareness, being highly aware of their strengths and weaknesses while striving to overcome pitfalls that may sabotage their performance.

“Good Boss, Bad Boss” warns that there is no panacea. There is no magic formula to what makes a good boss, and anyone who “promises you an easy or instant pathway to success is either ignorant or dishonest — or both,” says Dr. Sutton.

“Good Boss, Bad Boss” ends by asking and suggesting the audience think about two questions. These two questions should be something good bosses focus on daily:

(1) Would people want to work for you and would they choose to work for you again if given a choice?

(2) Are you in tune with what it feels like to work for you?

Summary: “Good Boss, Bad Boss” is an insightful and well-researched book. Following in the footsteps set by The No Asshole Rule, “Good Boss, Bad Boss” delivers a knock-out punch to those asshole bosses whose cluelessness continues to harm both their employees and the overall organization. Using the power of storytelling, Robert Sutton masterfully weaves together research and stories about good and bad bosses and behaviors in the workplace that led to their successes and failures. If you want a magic pill or quick solutions on how to be a great boss and avoid being a bad one, this is not the book for you. However, if you value the power of insight and self-awareness as part of an on-going process toward becoming a great boss, then you’ll love “Good Boss, Bad Boss.”

References

Pearson, C. & Porath, C. (2009). The cost of bad behavior: How incivility is damaging your business and what to do about it. New York, NY: Portfolio.

Sutton, R. I. (2010). Good boss, bad boss: How to be the best… and learn from the worst. New York: Business Plus.

Sutton, R. I. (2007). The no asshole rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t. New York: Business Plus.

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