Five steps to being a good boss

If you are a boss who wants to do great work, what can you do about it? Robert Sutton is devoted to answering that question. As a Professor of Management Science and Engineering and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford University, Sutton has studied leadership, innovation and workplace dynamics for years. This extract, from his book Good Boss, Bad Boss, shows how the best bosses think.


how to be a good boss


If you are a boss, the beliefs and assumptions you hold about yourself, your work, and your people shape what you do every day and how you (and others) judge if things are going well or badly.


The best bosses embrace five beliefs that are stepping stones to effective action.



Tommy Lasorda has served the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team as a player, a coach, or an executive since 1949, including a twenty-year stint as manager. Lasorda once said, ‘I believe that managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly, you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.’ I call this Lasorda’s Law, as it captures the delicate balance that every good boss seeks between managing too much and too little.


Researchers Daniel Ames and Frank Flynn proposed a hypothesis reminiscent of Lasorda’s Law: managers who are too assertive will damage relationships with superiors, peers, and followers; but managers who are not assertive enough won’t press followers to achieve sufficiently tough goals. So Ames and Flynn speculated that the best bosses would be rated roughly average on terms like competitive, aggressive, passive, and submissive by followers. They asked 213 MBA students to rate their most recent boss’s assertiveness. As predicted, moderately assertive bosses were rated as most effective overall, most likely to succeed in the future, and as someone the MBAs would work with again. Ames and Flynn imply that a sign of a ‘perfectly assertive’ boss is that followers may notice that they don’t notice their boss’s aggressiveness, competitiveness, passiveness, and submissiveness: Like salt in a sauce, too much overwhelms the dish; too little is similarly distracting; but just the right amount allows the other flavours to dominate our experience.


Just as food is rarely praised for being perfectly salted, leaders may somewhat infrequently be praised for being perfectly assertive.


Effective bosses know it is sometimes best to leave their people alone. They realize that keeping a close eye on people often either has no effect on performance or undermines it – in contrast to micromanagers, who believe their relentless attention and advice bolsters performance.


The best management is sometimes less management or no management at all. William Coyne, who led 3M’s Research and Development efforts for over a decade, believed a big part of his job was to leave his people alone and protect them from other curious executives. As he put it: ‘After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every week to see how it is doing.’


Yet, as Lasorda’s Law and Ames and Flynn’s research suggest, good bosses don’t just ignore their people or shower them with unconditional warm fuzziness. There are times when bosses need to coach people, discipline, communicate direction, and interject in hundreds of other little ways.


Renowned theatrical director Frank Hauser offered lovely advice about walking this line. He was talking about directing plays, but his wisdom applies to other bosses: ‘You are not the parent of this child we call the play. You are present at its birth for clinical reasons, like a doctor or a midwife. Your job most of the time is to simply do no harm. When something goes wrong, however, your awareness that something is awry – and your clinical intervention to correct it – can determine whether the child will live or die.’


Like Frank Hauser, savvy bosses travel through their days in search of the sweet spot between interjecting too little and too much, keeping a close eye on when more or less pressure, nagging, and intimidation is needed to get the best out of their people (and for provoking respect and  ignity rather than contempt).



The best bosses think and act like they are running a marathon, not a sprint. Researchers use the word grit to describe this mindset, which Professor Angela Duckworth and her colleagues define as ‘perseverance and passion toward long-term goals’. They add, ‘Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon, his or her advantage is stamina.’ Albert Einstein saw himself as gritty rather than brilliant and allegedly said, ‘It’s not that I am so smart, it is just that I stay with my problems longer.’


Great bosses instill grit in followers. They are dogged and patient, pressing themselves and others to move ever forward. Gritty bosses create urgency without treating life as one long emergency.


Glenn Osaka has grit. He was hired in 2000 to be the CEO of Reactivity, a high-flying Silicon Valley start-up. Reactivity consulted on technically difficult aspects of building websites and incubated new companies. In early 2001, they were flush with earnings, stock from other start-ups, and millions in venture capital dollars. Then the bubble burst and Reactivity’s income evaporated. Glenn and his team didn’t give up and shut down, like most dot-coms did. They did a ‘major reset’ in 2002, cutting back from seventy to thirteen people and returning 12 million dollars to investors. Glenn pushed and stirred people to brainstorm new business models to save the company. When they decided to become an enterprise software firm focused on security, Glenn pressed his team to build new products, hire the right people, and find customers. Glenn insisted they avoid detours and distractions. I watched Glenn persuade a software designer to stop consulting because, although it brought in money, Reactivity’s survival hinged on building and selling the new product and little else. As John Lilly, chief technology officer and cofounder, told me, ‘Everyone who stayed through the transition did selling work, including making cold calls and talking with customers. That was a hard thing for a lot of engineers.’


Glenn’s perseverance paid off. Reactivity acquired key customers, secured new financing, and was bought by Cisco for 135 million dollars in 2007.


Gritty bosses are driven by the nagging conviction that everything they and their people do could be better if they tried just a little harder or were just a bit more creative. Pixar’s Brad Bird won Oscars for directing The Incredibles and Ratatouille. When my colleagues and I interviewed him in 2008, Bird kept talking about this ‘relentless restlessness’. Bird had worked at Walt Disney’s animation studio as a young man, and saw that the master animators who created classics like Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Cinderella were never satisfied: ‘They would get to the end of a film and they would say, “I just started to feel like I understood the character, and I want to go back and do the whole thing over, because now I understand it, and the film’s over.”’ The studio went into decline after Walt Disney died, and the old masters’ hungriness was replaced with complacency. Bird lamented that one new studio boss ‘had us all sit on the floor while he stood’ and announced, ‘I’m satisfied with what I do.’ Bird was not impressed: ‘He lost me because I had already been with the guys whose worst stuff was 1,000 times better than this guy, and they were never satisfied with what they did.’ Bird’s disgust led him to rock the Disney boat enough to get fired. The ‘relentless restlessness’ that Bird picked up from those masters has served as rocket fuel throughout his career as a creator and director of animated films and TV shows, including The Simpsons.


This nagging conviction that nothing is ever quite good enough, that you can never stop learning and can never ever rest on your laurels isn’t just a hallmark of skilled bosses in flashy industries. You see it in effective bosses like Jeanne Hammontree, who operates a Chick-Fil-A restaurant. Jeanne constantly experiments with ways to drive business to her place in the Coolsprings Galleria food court near Nashville, Tennessee: putting advertisements in elevators, dressing employees in a Chick-Fil-A cow suit (the company mascot) and sending them to other stores to take pictures with employees (who make up 50 percent of her customers), and strolling around the mall to introduce herself to store owners and employees. Jeanne’s telltale stamina and  relentlessness help explain why sales at her restaurant were up over 10 percent in 2008, a tough  year for most Galleria businesses because of the economic downturn.



Having long-term goals, and doggedly working toward them day after day, is a hallmark of bosses with grit. Great big goals set direction and energize people, but if goals are all you’ve got, you are doomed. The path to success is paved with small wins. Even the grandest and most  glorious victories rest on a string of modest but constructive steps forward.


As a boss, framing what you and your people do as a series of manageable steps leads to better decisions, sustains motivation, and helps people experience less distress. Karl Weick, author of the classic article ‘Small Wins’, shows that when a challenge is construed as too big, too complex, or too difficult, people freak out and freeze up. Weick shows that people think and act more effectively when they face and can conquer more modest and controllable challenges.


The best bosses realize that when they focus on the little things, the big things take care of themselves. The best bosses break down problems into bite-sized pieces and talk and act like each little task is something that people can complete without great difficulty. Doing so instils calmness and confidence, and spurs constructive action. One CEO I know used this strategy at a kick-off meeting for a big sales campaign. He led a discussion of the actions required to make the campaign a big success. The result was a to-do list with over one hundred tasks, which led people to worry aloud that accomplishing it all in a few months felt impossible. This boss reduced the group’s angst by asking them to sort the list into ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ tasks. For each easy task, he asked who could do it and when they could get it done. Within fifteen minutes, the group realized that they could accomplish over half the tasks in just a few days. This lowered their anxiety, set the stage for a bunch of quick wins, and gave them confidence about the entire campaign.



A few years ago, I did a workshop with a management team that was suffering from group dynamics problems. In particular, team members felt their boss, a senior vice president, was overbearing, listened poorly, and routinely ran over others. The VP denied all this and called his people ‘thin-skinned wimps’. I asked the team – the boss and five direct reports – to do a variation of an exercise I’ve used in the classroom for years. They spent about twenty minutes brainstorming ideas about products their business might bring to market; they then spent ten minutes narrowing their choices to just three: the most feasible, wildest, and most likely to fail.


But as the group brainstormed and made these decisions, I didn’t pay attention to the content of their ideas. Instead, I worked with a couple of others from the company to make rough counts of the number of comments made by each member, the number of times each interrupted other members, and the number of times each was interrupted. During this short exercise, the VP made about 65 percent of the comments, interrupted others at least twenty times, and was never interrupted once. I then had the VP leave the room after the exercise and asked his five underlings to estimate the results; their recollections were quite accurate, especially about their boss’s stifling actions. When we brought the VP back in, he recalled making about 25 percent of the comments, interrupting others two or three times, and being interrupted three or four times. When we gave the boss the results and told him that his direct reports made far more accurate estimates, he was flabbergasted and a bit pissed off at everyone in the room.


As this VP discovered, being a boss is much like being a high-status primate in any group: the creatures beneath you in the pecking order watch every move you make and so they know a lot more about you than you know about them.


Anthropologists who study chimpanzees, gorillas, and baboons report ‘followers look at the leader; the opposite does not happen as regularly or intensely.’ Studies of baboon troops show that a typical member glances at the alpha male every twenty or thirty seconds. Psychologist Susan Fiske observes, ‘Attention is directed up the hierarchy. Secretaries know more about their bosses than vice versa; graduate students know more about their advisors than vice versa.’ Fiske explains this happens because, like our fellow primates, ‘people pay attention to those who control their outcomes. In an effort to predict and possibly influence what is going to happen to them, people gather information about those with power.’


People in power tend to become self-centered and oblivious to what their followers need, do, and say. That alone is bad enough. But the problem is compounded because a boss’s self-absorbed words and deeds are usually scrutinized so closely by subordinates. I call this the toxic tandem.


To appreciate how such power poisoning plays out for bosses, consider the ‘cookie experiment’ reported by psychologist Dacher Keltner and his colleagues. Three-person student teams were instructed to produce a short policy paper. Two members were randomly assigned to write it; the third member evaluated it and determined how much to pay the two ‘workers’.


After about thirty minutes, the experimenter brought in a plate of five cookies. It turned out that a little taste of power turned people into pigs: not only did the ‘bosses’ tend to take a second cookie, they also displayed other symptoms of ‘disinhibited eating’, chewing with their mouths open and scattering crumbs.


The cookie experiment illustrates a finding repeated in many studies. When people (regardless of personality) wield power, their ability to lord it over others causes them to (1) become more focused on their own needs and wants; (2) become less focused on others’ needs, wants, and actions; and (3) act as if written and unwritten rules others are expected to follow don’t apply to them. Good bosses constantly guard against falling prey to the toxic tandem. They never forget how closely their followers watch them, and they resist the urge to grab all the goodies for themselves and ignore their followers’ feelings and needs. The advice that David Packard of HP fame gave to managers in 1958 applies just as well today: ‘Watch your smile, your tone of voice, the way you look at people, the way you greet them, the use of nicknames, a memory for faces, names and dates. These small things will refine your ability to get on with others.’ As Packard realized, your charges scrutinize even your most trivial and innocent actions, and their reactions shape how much of themselves they will dedicate to you and to their work.



Donovan Campbell led the ‘Joker One’ Marine platoon in Ramadi during some of the bloodiest street battles of the Iraq war. Lieutenant Campbell devoted enormous effort to protecting his men, through little things like ordering them to rehearse over and over so they could get in and out of a Humvee quickly, and nagging them to eat and ‘push’ water. And through big things, like when he believed his men were unnecessarily put in harm’s way by a superior’s decision, he argued back vehemently – although he couldn’t always change their minds. One of the worst days of Campbell’s life came after his platoon was ordered to take his executive officer (the ‘XO’) to inspect construction work the U.S. government was paying for at a local school. Campbell resisted because it was in a dangerous area, and he had learned the hard way that waiting in the open with a bunch of marines and vehicles was an invitation for an insurgent attack. Campbell was overruled, but he insisted that the XO spend no more than ten minutes in the schoolhouse – preferably five – because the longer they waited, the more time insurgents had to notice them and mount an attack.


The XO agreed. But even though Campbell repeatedly called and pleaded with him to come out after five minutes, it took the XO nearly another ten minutes to emerge – despite repeated promises that he was on his way. When the XO finally walked out, he was followed by twenty or so schoolkids. Just then, grenades started landing and, in Campbell’s words, ‘the crowd of small children disintegrated into flame and smoke.’ In the ensuing firefight and efforts to get the kids to a hospital, Lance Corporal Todd Bolding had his legs blown off and later died. The men of Joker One were shaken by Bolding’s loss, and Campbell became withdrawn and depressed for weeks.


But his men remained loyal to him throughout and continued to step between him and enemy gunfire because they knew that although he couldn’t protect them from everything, Campbell always had their backs.


The steps most bosses take to protect their people are less dramatic and risky. Yet a hallmark of effective bosses everywhere is that they doggedly protect their people. Great bosses battle on their people’s behalf – even when they suffer personally as a result.




How Would Your People Answer

These Questions About You?


  1. Following Lasorda’s Law?
    Are you constantly thinking about and trying to walk the most constructive line between being too assertive and not assertive enough? Or are you neglecting to give people the guidance, wisdom, and feedback they need to succeed? Worse yet, are you obsessively monitoring and micromanaging every move they make?


  1. Got Grit?
    Do you treat the work you lead as a marathon or a sprint – are you dogged and patient, pressing yourself and your people ever forward? Or do you look for instant cures, treat life as one emergency after another, and give up (or disappear) when the going gets tough?


  1. Small Wins?
    Do you frame what your people need to accomplish as a series of small, realistic, and not overly difficult steps? Or do you usually propose grand goals and strategies without helping people break them into bite-sized pieces?


  1. Beware the Toxic Tandem?
    Do you remind yourself that your people are watching you very closely – and do you act accordingly to avoid doing little things that undermine their performance and dignity? Or are you oblivious to this intense scrutiny and rarely (if ever) think about how the little things you do and say will be magnified in your followers’ minds?


  1. Got Their Backs?
    Do you see your job as caring for and protecting your people, and fighting for them when necessary? Or do you consider it too much trouble to advocate for resources they need or too personally risky to battle idiocy from on high? When your people screw up, do you take the heat or hang them out to dry? When you screw up, do you admit it or point the finger of blame at your innocent underlings?



Bob Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford University, and the author of seven books. Good Boss, Bad Boss is published by Piatkus Books.

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