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What makes a boss great? It's a question I've been researching for a while now. In June 2009, I offered some analysis in HBR on the subject, and more recently I've been hard at work on a book called Good Boss, Bad Boss (published in September by Business Plus).
In both cases, my approach has been to be as evidence-based as possible. That is, I avoid giving any advice that isn't rooted in real proof of efficacy; I want to pass along the techniques and behaviors that are grounded in sound research. It seems to me that, by adopting the habits of good bosses and shunning the sins of bad bosses, anyone can do a better job overseeing the work of others.
At the same time, I've come to conclude that all the technique and behavior coaching in the world won't make a boss great if that boss doesn't also have a certain mindset.
My readings of peer-reviewed studies, plus my more idiosyncratic experience studying and consulting to managers in many settings, have led me identify some key beliefs that are held by the best bosses — and rejected, or more often simply never even thought about, by the worst bosses. Here they are, presented as a neat dozen:
- I have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it feels like to work for me.
- My success — and that of my people — depends largely on being the master of obvious and mundane things, not on magical, obscure, or breakthrough ideas or methods.
- Having ambitious and well-defined goals is important, but it is useless to think about them much. My job is to focus on the small wins that enable my people to make a little progress every day.
- One of the most important, and most difficult, parts of my job is to strike the delicate balance between being too assertive and not assertive enough.
- My job is to serve as a human shield, to protect my people from external intrusions, distractions, and idiocy of every stripe — and to avoid imposing my own idiocy on them as well.
- I strive to be confident enough to convince people that I am in charge, but humble enough to realize that I am often going to be wrong.
- I aim to fight as if I am right, and listen as if I am wrong — and to teach my people to do the same thing.
- One of the best tests of my leadership — and my organization — is "what happens after people make a mistake?"
- Innovation is crucial to every team and organization. So my job is to encourage my people to generate and test all kinds of new ideas. But it is also my job to help them kill off all the bad ideas we generate, and most of the good ideas, too.
- Bad is stronger than good. It is more important to eliminate the negative than to accentuate the positive.
- How I do things is as important as what I do.
- Because I wield power over others, I am at great risk of acting like an insensitive jerk — and not realizing it.
What do you say: does that about cover it? If not, tell me what I missed. Or if you're not quite sure what I mean in these brief statements, stay tuned. Over the coming weeks, I'll be digging into each one of them in more depth, touching on the research evidence and illustrating with examples.
If you're like most people I meet, you've had your share of bad bosses — and probably at least one good one. What were the attitudes the good one held? And what great, workplace-transforming beliefs could your worst boss never quite embrace?
Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He studies and writes about management, innovation, and the nitty-gritty of organizational life. His new book is Good Boss, Bad Boss.