Good Boss, Bad Boss – Book Review

by Robert I. Sutton. 2010. New York: Business Plus. 252 pages.

Reviewed by Diane Byington, Ph.D.

goodbossIf you’re a boss, you’ll probably want to have this book on your bookshelf, along with its predecessor, the best-seller The No Asshole Rule. After achieving success with the first book, Sutton decided to research and write about what distinguishes good bosses from bad bosses. He does an excellent job combining research, personal experience, and common knowledge into a readable and helpful set of suggestions for how to be a good boss.

Accordingly, the book is filled with lists telling you, in specific terms, how to succeed as a boss. Casually flipping through the pages, I see lists that include: The 11 Commandments for Wise Bosses, How to Lead a Good Fight, Tricks for Taking Charge, and A Recipe for an Effective Apology. I especially liked that one.

The components of an effective apology are: No sugar coating, take the blame fully, apologize fully, take immediate control over what you can, explain what you have learned, communicate what you will do differently, and get credit for improvements. Sutton describes how this looks when it is successful. In late August 2008, Maple Leaf Foods was responsible for a number of deaths and illnesses caused by bacteria in meats produced in its plant. The CEO, Michael McCain, announced in a press conference that the plant was closed. He apologized to those hurt by his firm’s products and admitted that he and others in the plant were responsible for the tragedy. He went into detail about the steps Maple Leaf was planning to ameliorate the problem and emphasized that it was his job to restore the faith of the Canadian people in Maple Leaf. By December 2008, polls indicated that confidence in Maple Leaf had risen from 60 percent to 91 percent since the crisis began. McCain’s swift actions, and his willingness to take personal responsibility, were largely responsible for the turnaround.

Stories like this abound throughout the book. Sutton seems to have the low-down on bosses everywhere, and he tells stories about many of them. He especially focuses on the positive bosses and what they do well, which is inspiring and could serve to resurrect the morale of the most burned-out of bosses.

He includes sections on issues that bosses deal with every day, including how to create psychological safety for your employees and how to shield them from “red tape, meddlesome executives, nosy visitors, unnecessary meetings, and a host of other insults, intrusions and time wasters.” These techniques include not burdening your employees with excessive meetings, which are notorious time and energy suckers, intercepting and dealing with problems and people so that your employees can focus on their work, and proactively intervening with upper management when bad directives come down that your people either cannot implement or that will likely harm the company.

I was especially struck by the chapter called “Don’t Shirk the Dirty Work.” Bosses are the ones who have to lay people off, confront poor productivity, or do other things that will hurt others. Sutton says that dirty work does less harm when bosses add four antidotes into the mix: Prediction, Understanding, Control, and Compassion.

First, predictability helps people know when to relax versus when dread and vigilance are warranted, which protects them from the emotional and physical exhaustion that results when people never feel safe from harm for even a moment. Bosses, for example, can warn people that layoffs are imminent or, conversely, that workers are safe for the next three months.

Second, the best bosses know that it is better to give people explanations they dislike than no explanation at all. Employees who are given sound and believable explanations for unsettling changes are less prone to become angry and anxious, retaliate, quit, steal, or become less productive. When fear is in the air, your mantra should be: Simple, Concrete, Credible, and Repetitive.

Third, great bosses help followers feel powerful rather than powerless, especially during rough times. This means that dirty work will do less harm if you can give people some control over when and how bad things happen to them. Fired employees will suffer less if they have control over where they go next, how they leave, and (within reason) when they leave.

Fourth, the best bosses convey empathy when they make and implement tough decisions. For example, don’t lay people off using text messages, email, or in a public place. Do realize that one day you may be on the other side of the table, so treat people the way you’d like to be treated in this situation.

There are at least 21 million bosses in the United States, and 75 percent of the workforce reports that their immediate supervisor is the most stressful part of their job. Even bosses who think they are doing a good job can benefit by reading this book, and for the rest of you, you might save your career and the health of your employees by implementing the suggestions in this book.

— Diane Byington is a writer and coach who consults with The Booth Company.

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