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How not to be boss from hell

Published on Friday, 07 Jan 2011
Book: Good Boss, Bad Boss
Author: Robert Sutton
Publisher: Business Plus
Illustration: Bay Leung

It's official: Bad bosses can be fatal - at least according to Robert Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss who is also known as the father of the jerk-free workplace.

A professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, and organisational behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Sutton is a prolific academic writer whose books include The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't - the 2007 New York Times and BusinessWeek best-seller.

In Good Boss, Bad Boss, Sutton offers a rough guide to the virtues and vices of authority and "a blueprint for those whose bosses just don't seem to get it".

The findings are based on Sutton's 30-year career as a researcher, and thousands of observations and conversations with bosses, their colleagues and employees. Although most of his insights are common sense, they still pack a punch.

Consider this: A Swedish study that followed 3,122 men for 10 years found that those with the best bosses - who were considerate, specified clear goals and saw through changes - suffered fewer heart attacks than those with bad bosses.

Or this: Certified "bossholes" - defined by the Urban Dictionary as "the deadly hybrid of boss and asshole" - "ruin their followers' mental health by provoking anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome".

At the core of Sutton's inquiry are the two "acid tests" for great bosses: whether people want to work for them and whether bosses are in tune with what it feels like to work for them.

Because "every boss is prone to bouts of cluelessness", the key quality is a good sense of self-awareness - to know one's strength and weaknesses and be brave enough to confront those character failings and improve on them.

"The upshot is, to be a great boss you've got to think and act as if it is all about you. Your success depends on being fixated on yourself," he writes. 

Before launching into his main findings on what makes a typical boss good or bad, Sutton offers a caveat. "There is no single magical or simple thing that defines a great boss ... The moves that great bosses make are too complex, varied, messy, and unpredictable to be captured by any single theme, slogan or set of steps."

Readers are given examples of actual studies and anecdotal evidence of good and bad behaviour, covering bosses such as former Xerox chairman Anne Mulcahy, Andy Grove of Intel, Steve Jobs of Apple, Ray Kroc of McDonald's, and even George Washington.

We are also treated to a survey of shocking behaviour by reputed "bossholes" such as former Disney chief Michael Eisner, Academy Award-winning producer Scott Rudin and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart.

For Sutton, being a good boss does not merely involve boosting the bottom line. He believes that aside from delivering financial profits, a good boss must also be profitable for the well-being of his charges - what he calls "humanity".

"Bosses ought to be judged by what they and their people get done and by how their followers feel along the way," he says. "The best bosses balance performance and humanity, getting things done in ways that enhance rather than destroy dignity and pride."

Although written in a breezily humorous style, the book's narrative thread can sometimes prove difficult to follow, given the author's back-and-forth citations of stories and case studies. Still, it offers a wealth of findings and recommendations for current and future bosses who want to avoid the terrible fate of "bossholes".


The 11 Commandments for Wise Bosses

  • Have strong opinions and weakly held beliefs
  • Do not treat others as if they are idiots
  • Listen attentively to your people
  • Ask good questions
  • Ask others for help and be grateful
  • Do not hesitate to say: “I don’t know”
  • Forgive failure, but remember the lessons
  • Fight as if you’re right, listen as if you’re wrong
  • Do not hold grudges after losing an argument
  • Know your flaws, work with people who correct your weaknesses
  • Thank your people


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