What Good Bosses Should Believe

by Krishna on June 1, 2010

Bob Sutton is hard at work on a new book and has put together a set of key beliefs that good bosses have. My thoughts on some of them:

1) I have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it feels like to work for me.

12) Because I wield power over others, I am at great risk of acting like an insensitive jerk — and not realizing it.

Despite however good you think the relationship between you and your team is, it is always corrupted to an extent by the power that you have over them. When you are “persuading” someone, part of the influence comes from that power. Your “two cents” input is worth a lot more when compared to that of your team members. This is a problem in the best of circumstances. It becomes even worse when you are operating in a crisis and have to exert that power explicitly.

The key part of Bob’s insight is that as a manager, it is impossible to understand how much of a problem this is. It helps if you have worked under a bad boss and have (unfortunately) experienced things that have ticked you off the wrong way. But ultimately, people are different and what you may think is not a big deal may matter a lot to someone else. So there are real limitations to the reality of what you think will be received well by employees. For example, take a look at Steve Rowe's experiences with his team.

Bob also talks about how being a good manager is all about balancing different priorities and different kinds of behavior.

4) 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.

6) 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.

To relate to the previous topic, let’s say that you always try to elicit opinions from your team before making a decision. But in a particular instance, you sincerely believe (based on your experience) that the team consensus is wrong and will produce poor results. Faced with the need to exert your authority to override the team’s idea, how do you avoid being seen as authoritative or, worse, arbitrary? How do you ensure that your employees will not take the rejection personally and refuse to provide valuable suggestions the next time you need input?

In such situations, poor managers take the path of least resistance. If they are more interested in doing “what needs to be done”, they will do it riding roughshod over everyone’s feelings, creating a disaster for future team cooperation. Or, conversely, if they want to be popular, they will go along with everyone or procrastinate in making tough decisions, thus creating huge risks for the organization. Considering both sides is difficult, but essential to good management.

Also, about how bad managers are always thinking about new initiatives to “motivate” employees instead of fixing things that are broken:

10) Bad is stronger than good. It is more important to eliminate the negative than to accentuate the positive.

One of the stupidest books I read was “Fish” (sorry, no Amazon link to trash!) which asked managers to make work “playful” through various “fun”, “team-building” activities so that they could improve employee morale. The idea apparently is that employees will forget 40 (or more) hours of mind-numbing work if you just let them play a bit.

Good managers understand that you have to work on making the work and workplace worthwhile. If the workplace is mired in bureaucracy, the work makes no difference, the infrastructure is crumbling, then all the silly activities you can think of will not build a good team. You need to get rid of the stench first, then bring in the espresso maker.

Read the whole thing.

{ 1 comment }

Lorna (Gally) Moravec July 11, 2010 at 2:46 pm

This is an excellent critique and I agree with you about the "Fish" book. I have never been a boss, but I have had many bosses, some very bad, most good, and a couple who were so great it was a pleasure to go to work each day. Yes, it is that possible to be a really great boss. I cannot think of a single flaw in the way they did their job. The good ones gave a thorough understanding about what was expected on the job and then totally turned us loose, absolutely trusting us to do our best work, which we did with alacrity. There was no nit-picking, no nagging about things about when you clocked in or out, or other such details. We were tremendously productive as a result, very satisfied with our jobs, more than willing to go the extra mile whenever needed. I noticed that everyone on my team on both these jobs were a pleasure to work with all day, every day. We all got along splendidly and everyone pulled their weight and gave of their best and supported one another. I think one of the talents of these superb bosses was knowing exactly whom to hire. I will always be grateful to them.

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