Books@DailyFinance: An Irreverent Guide to Being a Better Boss


Bob Sutton is a provocateur. The Stanford B-school professor'sThe No Asshole Rule jolted readers with its descriptions of unacceptable workplace behavior and a willingness to expose CEO offenders. The book's unconditional directive: Companies should ban bullying personalities from their ranks.

Earlier Sutton books included Weird Ideas That Work (on creativity) and Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense (on "evidence-based management") -- and once again, the titles said it all.

Now Sutton is back with a follow-up: Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Learn from the Worst (Business Plus, $23.99). With its lists of dos and don'ts aimed at a readership of managers, this volume is more conventional and less lively than its predecessor -- but it's still well worth a read.

"Squelch Your Inner Bosshole"

Not that Sutton has totally laid down his Uzi. A chapter entitled "Squelch Your Inner Bosshole" instructs managers on how to face up to and overcome their own bad habits. The author cites a 2007 Zogby survey to the effect that 72% of workplace bullies are bosses. He even tells of one case in which a manager actually waterboarded an employee to encourage him to sell more.

"If a team of world-class behavioral scientists designed a job that was optimized for turning occupants into assholes, the result would be disturbingly similar to many, if not most, bosses' jobs," the author writes. In short: Bosses have power over others and are themselves under lots of pressure, which they too often shove down to underlings.

So what's the remedy? One idea is to "post a bosshole bounty: Pay twenty dollars to anyone who tells you when you have been a jerk." And if you're really out of control, you could team up with a "toxic handler" who'll help you clean up your messes.

Incentive Systems a Thorny Matter

A great deal of Sutton's advice involves developing "the right mindset." Getting the proper balance between being too assertive and not assertive enough. Concentrating on small wins, and helping your subordinates get their work done while experiencing dignity and pride. Accepting at least some of the blame when things go wrong."Giving your followers more credit than you think they deserve" -- since bosses routinely get more credit than they deserve.

Incentive systems can be a thorny matter, Sutton says. Companies must be on guard that "anointed stars" do not undermine the performance of others.

Reward systems such as the bonuses at Merrill Lynch, says the author, can encourage selfishness and the hoarding of skills that make it tough for new employees to learn anything. Overall organizational performance can suffer as a result.

Be Hypersensitive

The best bosses "protect their people from red tape, meddlesome executives, nosy visitors, unnecessary meetings and a host of other insults, intrusions and time wasters." Sutton even encourages "creative incompetence" as a way of minimizing "half-assed" tasks imposed from on high. (Computer-generated performance reviews, anyone?)

The author concludes with an unexpected, seemingly un-Sutton-like maxim: "To be a great boss, you've got to think and act as if it is all about you." An invitation to egomania? In this case, no. Sutton says managers should be hypersensitive to the impression they make on subordinates -- becoming very conscious of "what it feels like to work for you."

Because, after all, in hierarchical organizations, it really is all about them.