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A guidebook for becoming a better manager

In 'Good Boss, Bad Boss,' Robert Sutton provides real-world anecdotes to underscore the benefits of enlightened management and the damage that poor leaders can do to employees and their companies.

November 07, 2010|By Peter Whitehead

It can be a mighty relief when a disliked boss decides to leave, creating a dangerous moment during which emotions must be kept in check.

It can certainly be a mistake to follow the example of one employee I knew who pinned a departing manager against a wall and told him, in robust language, to go away and not come back. Unfortunately, the manager returned a year later to an even more senior position.

Anecdotes such as this abound in Robert Sutton's book "Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best … and Learn from the Worst," published by Business Plus.

Without the anecdotes, it would be a brief and colorless exhortation to use common sense and treat people with respect when in a position of authority. With them, it paints a terrifying picture of workplaces randomly blessed with paragons of virtue or damned with dysfunctional misfits at the helm.

Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, declared war on bullies and incompetents in his 2007 book.

This follow-up takes a closer look at bosses: the things they should and should not do; the central role they play in the lives of their teams; and the damage they can do to those around them and to their business.

It pulls no punches into laying into the bad bosses. There are allegations of employees being physically tortured — one incident of "waterboarding" during a company picnic resulted in a lawsuit — and tales of people being fired by e-mail.

Mistreated employees become resentful, unmotivated, obstructive and energized only by the thought of revenge.

Bad bosses are labeled "clueless and coldhearted" and accused of causing far-reaching damage to their teams and their companies. They "make people sick," Sutton says.

To back this up, we hear of a 10-year Swedish study of 3,000 workers that found "those with lousy bosses suffered far more heart attacks."

Then there are the good examples, such as the Oakland police sergeant who was so widely respected that several veteran officers chose the unpopular graveyard shift so they could work alongside him.

Alternating between the heartwarmingly enlightened and the blood-curdlingly awful is good knockabout stuff, but will bad bosses learn from it? Will they even pick up this book?

Sutton offers various strategies for improvement, such as imagining your 14-year-old son is following you around all day: How proud of you would he feel?

The author himself acknowledges that one of the offenders' worst traits is self-delusion: Bad bosses could read the book from cover to cover without recognizing themselves.

Having made the case repeatedly that managers need to consider others in everything they do, Sutton's perhaps counterintuitive conclusion is that they have to accept the role is all about themselves: their own behavior is infectious and will be copied; everything they do will be watched and noted.

Is this good advice? The world's worst boss, David Brent of the TV comedy series "The Office" (the character was renamed Michael Scott in the U.S. series) believes exactly that, with his constant "look at me" antics.

But he is utterly lacking in common sense and compassion. So perhaps the best advice would be that anyone without these traits should please do everyone a favor and steer clear of management.

Peter Whitehead is an editor at the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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