What makes powerful people stupid?

That could easily be the sub-title of a book by Stanford Professor Bob Sutton called Good Boss, Bad Boss (affiliate link). He gives a talk at Stanford Business School here.

Prior to this, this he wrote a best-selling book called: The No Asshole Rule (affiliate link). Love the title. Baird & Co (large investment firm named #11 in Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For in 2010) cited the no asshole rule as one of its core principles.

Professor Sutton makes several observations (based on research, peer-reviewed journals etc) that explain why it is so easy for people to become insensitive, insular and pig-headed bosses. He says the fastest way to make a jerk out of someone is to make them a boss. For those who want to keep climbing the corporate ladder, manage more people, own a bigger P&L, become the senior VP . . . things to be aware of.

Bosses get too much of the credit and blame

As an executive, you will likely get more blame or credit than you deserve. Leaders account for about 15% of organizational performance, but get 50% of the blame or credit. The impact is magnified.

People pay more attention to bosses

This is a bit unsurprising, since even baboons look at the alpha male every 20–30 seconds. Of course, the sad corollary is that all the time “checking in” with the boss takes away from time leading, coaching, mentoring direct reports. When I worked in Asia, there was a broken English expression used to describe direct reports who are so eager to please their boss. They were called “Yes-men”.

With so many sycophants, it is no surprise that bosses tend to focus on themselves, not focus on others, and think that the rules don’t apply to them (e.g., pick any despot in history or disgraced leader)

Bosses don’t get the real story because . . .

. . . they like flattery

Research that shows that people like flattery, even if insincere. People learn the wrong things. Sadly, brown-nosing often gets you ahead.

. . . they shoot the messenger

Although bosses say that they want to hear bad news quickly. . . sadly, they often don’t. Too often, they associate the bad news with the person delivering the message. People learn the wrong things. Don’t deliver any bad news, pass the buck.

What this means to the consultant:

  • Your client is not getting good information. Look out for their blindside. Act as a trusted adviser
  • Be smart when delivering bad news (to anyone). Use data to take the subjectivity and blaming out of the discussion
  • Don’t fall into the same trap. Don’t become a jerk

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Reformed management consultant who now teaches at business school. Business geek.

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Reformed management consultant who now teaches at business school. Business geek.

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