Good Boss, Bad Boss, by Bob Sutton — Book Review

by Krishna on August 9, 2010

Good Boss Bad BossBob Sutton was kind enough to send me the galley of his forthcoming book “Good Boss, Bad Boss” (GBBB) a few weeks ago. I am quite fond of Bob’s books and blog posts, and was eagerly looking forward to this book. Bob’s previous book, “The No-Asshole Rule” was one of the best books I read in 2007. But as good as “The No Asshole Rule” was, GBBB is a much more valuable book for managers. It is more oriented towards introspection and action for those who strive towards becoming better managers.

The No-Asshole Role” resonated with many people because it illustrated the widespread problem of workplace jerks and bullies in very vivid terms. It also provided useful advice to employees suffering in demeaning workplaces. But unfortunately, as many people learned, gifting the book to an office thug in the hope that they may recognize themselves and improve upon their behavior quite often backfired. Even really malicious people think they can do no wrong and so there must be some problem with you for imagining otherwise.

So while “The No-Asshole Rule” was a timely book for the workplace bullied, it had its limitations as a self-improvement book. We all know a few contemptible people (who are not us) and we tend to spot them (not ourselves) in the book. And so far as we recognize ourselves capable of exhibiting the bad behavior in “The No-Asshole Rule”, we don’t think we are permanent jerks, but instead “forced by circumstances” to do bad things. The book also muddied the waters somewhat by examining instances where being a jerk actually resulted in getting things done.

Good Boss, Bad Boss” brings back the focus to who is really important. Bob Sutton clearly states, “It is All About You”. It is not about somebody else you can identify and point fingers at. As Jim Collins would say, no more looking out the window. Instead look in the mirror and understand what you need to be a better boss. You may say that this is par for the course for any management book, but most books may it sound that doing so is the easiest thing in the world. Bob’s achievement is that he explains how hard it is, how one should not underestimate the effort and pitfalls and how much effort one must put in, physically and mentally.

To give one instance, Bob explains how closely followers notice what their leaders do: every word, action or facial expression is observed and analyzed to death. The managed even pay careful attention to what the boss is wearing and build their wardrobe around that. For a boss who prides herself on clear communication, it can seem unfair that her carefully measured written word is not the only message reaching her employees from her. But that is the world in which she has to manage. And she has to put significant effort in understanding all the messages (conscious or otherwise) emanating from her.

There was also a temptation reading “The No-Asshole Rule” to conclude that being a good boss means not being a jerk. “Good Boss, Bad Boss” sets that right: it is not enough to be a pleasant boss, you also have to be effective in action and in temperament. Bob also shows how great bosses strike the right balance: just the appropriate level of assertiveness and consensus-building. And sometimes, bosses have to make tough decisions (for example, letting people go), but they find a way to do even the bad things the right way.

Every page in “Good Boss, Bad Boss” is packed with wisdom, but here are some of the overarching themes:

  1. Do you have the right mindset to become a good boss? Ever examine why you want to be a boss and whether you are doing the right things?
  2. A good boss cannot control everything (or even much), but by seeming to be in control through wielding power effectively, they can do a better job of managing outcomes.
  3. Be wise, be continuously learning and be humble.
  4. Grow your team with stars that work together and get rid of those who are destructive to the team spirit and results.
  5. Prioritize action. Ensure that the walk matches the talk.
  6. Protect your employees from people, policies and activities that hurt their productivity and emotional state.
  7. Management is not all roses. It involves making and implementing tough decisions. Learn to do them right instead of avoiding them and creating a wreck when you are finally forced into them.
  8. We are all jerks at least some of the time. Your goal should be to get from “some” to “none”.
  9. Being obsessed about self-improvement is the road to becoming a better boss.

Bob Sutton has done an amazing job of exploring every theme and related ideas in detail in the book. In fact, “Good Boss, Bad Boss” was an uncharacteristically slow read for me, because it made me pause quite often to think about how some piece of advice applied to me and my work. I kept thinking, “I should be doing this right now.” or “I should have been doing this years ago.

Accepting a managerial position always entails a modicum of ego, thinking that we are capable of leading others properly. But the truth is that most of us (including I) are only doing a small fraction of the things to be effective and good managers. Books like “Good Boss, Bad Boss” bring us back to earth and show us how much we need to improve. I believe that every manager reading this book will find something to adopt. And they, as I, will go back repeatedly to remind themselves what is important in managing people.

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