Book review: Good boss, bad boss

Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the best and learn from the worst

By Robert Sutton

Business Plus


So it turns out it really is all about you.

If you want to be a great boss, you need to be fixated on yourself, hypersensitive to what others think about you and a little paranoid.

It’s self-awareness that separates contenders from pretenders in the leadership ranks, says author Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. 

Good bosses are acutely aware that we’re watching everything you do and say, how you say it, who you say it to and when you say it.  No move or mood, no deed or decision goes unnoticed.  We watch everything you do. And we don’t forget.

 “If you are a boss, your success depends on staying in tune with how others think, feel and react to you,” says Sutton. “Bosses who persistently promote performance and humanity devote considerable energy to reading and responding to followers’ feelings and actions, and those of other key players like superiors, peers and customers.”

Sutton cites work by David Dunning of Cornell University that shows a lack of self-awareness is the hallmark of poor performers and clueless bosses. “They consistently overestimate their skills in just about any task that requires intellectual and social skills.”

In contrast, self-awareness is the hallmark of the best performers. “They are especially cognizant of their strengths and weaknesses and fret about overcoming pitfalls that can undermine their performance. They focus on controlling their moods and moves, accurately  interpreting their impact on others and making adjustments on the fly because they want their people to produce work that others will admire – and to feel respect and dignity along the way.”

According to Sutton, you’re a good boss if you can pass two acid tests.

Do people want to work for you and would they enthusiastically sign up for a second tour of duty with you at the helm?

And are you in tune with what it feels like to work for you?

Do the people working for you believe that you’re in charge and in control?  “If you want to be a successful boss, you have to convince people that your words and deeds pack a punch,” says Sutton.

Do you strive to be wise, dancing on the edge of overconfidence with a healthy dose of self-doubt and humility to save you from becoming arrogant and pigheaded?

Do you know how to manage your stars and deal with your rotten apples?

Can you link talk and action and steer clear of the smart-talk trap?

Do you serve as a human shield, letting your people do their jobs free of red tape, meddlesome executives and unnecessary meetings?  And when your people screw up, do you take the heat?

And are you willing to take on the dirty work?

“Every boss must do things that upset and hurt people,” says Sutton. “If you are the boss, it is your job to issue reprimands, fire people, deny budget requests, transfer employees to jobs they don’t want, and implement mergers, layoffs and shutdowns. If you can’t or won’t perform such unpleasant chores, perhaps you shouldn’t be the boss. Or, if you still want the job, you better recruit someone else to do your dirty work.”

Bosses matter and good bosses make a big difference. After surveying more than 100,000 employees over the past 30 years, Gallup’s army of researchers have found that managers trump companies. Immediate supervisors have the single greatest impact on engagement and performance. Good bosses can compensate for lousy work conditions.

Bad bosses will bring you a whole host of problems and cost you your best and brightest workers. After all, we don’t quit companies. We quit lousy bosses.

“Bosses pack a wallop, especially on their direct reports,” says Sutton. “Bosses shape how people spend their days and whether they experience joy or despair, perform well or badly, or are healthy or sick. Unfortunately, there are hoards of mediocre and downright rotten bosses out there, and big gaps between the best and worst.”

So if you want to be on the side of the angels and be a good boss, give Sutton’s book a careful read. And know that we’ll know you’re reading this book.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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