Robert I. Sutton, PhD is a Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford (amongst other positions) and a prolific author of books on good business and management practice. His previous works include Wierd Ideas That Work, The Knowing-Doing Gap and Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense. These books largely focus on how to improve productivity and innovation within companies but there is a strong human-behaviour thread running through all his publications. His most recent (and best known) book, The No Asshole Rule, took this thread and made it the whole focus, explaining how the evidence shows that civilised workplaces run by compassionate and considerate people are not only the most pleasant to work in, they are also they most successful. Although, admittedly, Bob has redefined “success” to mean a workplace that is both profitable and happy.
In the wake of The No Asshole Rule, Bob found himself inundated with emails from readers giving examples of assholes in their work place, and, he explains, it rapidly became clear that the vast majority of assholes were bosses. Unsurprisingly, it would seem that asshole bosses (“bossholes”) cause much more harm than their jerky underlings because of the added power they wield. It became apparent that the next book Bob needed to write should be a “how to” for bosses who wished to avoid the pitfalls that lead to assholiness. It’s important bosses are extra vigilant, he says, because if ever there was job that’s almost guaranteed to turn even the nicest person into an asshole, it’s being a manager. With that in mind, Bob set to work and wrote Good Boss, Bad Boss.
I loved reading this book: it spoke to my soul. I have long held a belief that the way to get the best from people is to treat them with respect and compassion but not to shy away from hard truths, especially those pertaining to yourself. I enjoy Bob Sutton’s writing so much partly because all the evidence he presents backs up that gut feeling. I am not yet a manager, although I think I am getting close, and I hope to be setting up my own research group in the next two or three years. Reading this book made me itch with excitement to try out the ideas inside, and I can’t wait to get the opportunity to start putting them into practice.
As befits a “how to” book, Good Boss, Bad Boss is structured rather like a manual. It is divided into chapters, each tackling one large pitfall. Within each chapter, the pitfalls are broken up into smaller mistakes and each mistake is demonstrated with a colourful anecdote. At the end of each chapter the important points are summarized in a list. That may sound dull, but Bob’s writing style is entertaining and accessible and, if occasionally his casual phraseology surprised me, I found it added charm. There is no jargon (in fact “jargon monoxide” is one of the poisonous substances Bob and one of his many contributors warn against) and the way the book is packed full of anecdotes and quotes from real people gives it human interest.
The book is stuffed with examples of real bosses, both good and bad, but (and importantly for a scientist like me and unusually in the realm of management guru publishing), the evidence Bob presents is based on peer-reviewed research with the anecdotes used to add colour and not as evidence in themselves. The book is definitely written to help you learn from the mistakes of others rather than making them yourself, although sometimes you do wonder just how many of those anecdotes were strictly necessary to get the point across and how many of them were included for entertainment.
Bob Sutton is an early adopter of a new literature. Not quite Literature 2.0 (that will come when the digital version complete with clickable links is released) but definitely Literature 1.5. This book is just a book, quite clearly made of paper and ink, and yet it is just a bit more than that. It cross-references Bob’s blog and, having read about various ideas in the book whilst it was being written, coming across them again in the finished article meant I felt included in the process. If you do not already know Bob’s blog, then the book will introduce you to the added value and extra tidbits to be found there. If you do, then some of the impact of the book will be lost, but this isn’t a novel with a twist at the end to be kept secret: it’s a book packed full of advice to be read once and then dipped into over and over again as you need reminding. It was great to read all of the tips I had previously picked up compiled into one volume together with a few new ones that aren’t on the blog, and I’m sure I will regularly consult it. The book combined with the blog duplicates a lot of information, but as we are forgetful apes and in constant need of reminding not to be irrational and self-destructive, that’s no bad thing! Together, the blog and the book work well and I think Literature 1.5 has a future.
This book doesn’t cover any of the usual advice for aspiring managers. If you are looking for a quick fix that will teach you how to be the best of the best, or motivate your staff with the minimum of effort, or if you believe good management is about finding ways to change other people, then this book isn’t for you. However, Good Boss, Bad Boss contains a wealth of information on changes you can make to your own behaviour that will help create a healthy and happy work environment, on how to treat people in a way that will improve morale and how to build a team that are loyal to you. With those things in place, you probably don’t need to worry too much about how to crack the whip – your people will work hard for you because they want to.
And if you aren’t interested in being a boss: read this book anyway. Combined with The No Asshole Rule, it provides excellent advice on how to go about just being a good person.