Good Bosses Are The Same Today As They Were In 1992

In a world of near-constant innovation and disruption, the definition of a great boss (or leader or manager) may be the one thing that doesn't require reinvention.

This is the fourth in a series excerpted from a new chapter in the paperback version of Good Boss, Bad Boss, a New York Times best-seller by Robert Sutton. Read the three other installments here

A lot of people write business books: about eleven thousand are published each year. There are armies of consultants, gurus, and wannabe thought leaders, and thousands of management magazines, radio and TV shows, websites, and blogs. 

These purveyors of management knowledge have incentives for claiming their ideas are “new and improved” rather than the same old thing. One twist, which I’ve seen a lot lately, is the claim that management or leadership needs to be reinvented. Many reasons given for this need seem sensible: Gen X and Gen Y require different management techniques; outsourcing, globalization, and information technology means working with people we rarely if ever meet in person; the pressure to think and move ever faster is unprecedented; so many employees are disengaged that they need to be managed so they feel appreciated.

Yet, no matter how hard I look at studies by academics and consulting firms, or at contrasts between successful and unsuccessful leaders, I can’t find persuasive evidence of substantial change in the kinds of bosses people want to become or work for, or that enable human groups and organizations to thrive. Changes such as the computer revolution, globalization, and distributed teams mean that if you are a boss, staying in tune with followers is more challenging than ever. And, certainly, bosses need to be more culturally aware because many workplaces are composed of more diverse people.

But every new generation of bosses faces hurdles that seem to make the job tougher than it ever was. The introduction of the telephone and air travel created many of the same challenges as the computer revolution—as did the introduction of the telegraph and trains. Just as every new generation of teenagers believes they have discovered sex and their parents can’t possibly understand what it feels like to be them, believing that that no prior generation of bosses ever faced anything like this and these crazy times require entirely new ways of thinking and acting are likely soothing to modern managers. These beliefs also help socalled experts like me sell our wares. Yet there is little evidence to support the claim that organizations—let alone the humans in them—have changed so drastically that we need to invent a whole new kind of boss.

This isn’t a new idea, either. In 1992, two Harvard Business School professors, Robert Eccles and Nitin Nohria (now the dean of HBS), wrote Beyond the Hype. This book showed that while management thinkers (notably the much worshipped Peter Drucker) have repeatedly claimed it is a whole new world out there for managers and employees—that everything needs to be reinvented because the old ways are obsolete—the fundamentals of what it takes to lead, organize, and inspire followers were pretty much “the same as it ever was.”

Eccles and Norhia’s argument applies as well in 2012 as in 1992—at least when it comes to bosses. Just like the leaders people wanted before the industrial revolution, we humans still yearn to follow others who are competent enough to bring in resources, teach us new skills, and generate attention and prestige from key outsiders—who drive  performance. We also want fair leaders who protect us, and who make us feel cared for and respected—who inject  humanity. Although the ways bosses accomplish these things is and has always been constrained by technologies, culture, different kinds of work, and on and on, the fundamentals remain unchanged. Yet the hype keeps flying about how we need to reinvent management. In particular, we often hear calls for the end of hierarchy, the virtues of empowerment, and how knowledge workers need to be treated in new and different ways.

The notion that people who do creative or complex work need more autonomy than others is quite old. Thomas Edison’s lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, was decentralized; workers there were encouraged to develop their own ideas, and there were fewer and less obvious status differences between people at different hierarchical levels compared to traditional organizations of the time. 

Yet, at Edison’s lab—as at today’s Apple, Google, Facebook, and Pixar and every other creative organization I know—there was a clear pecking order. Indeed, a careful review of research by my Stanford colleagues Debra Gruenfeld and Larissa Tiedens shows that we humans prefer hierarchical relationships, are happier when we work in clear hierarchies than where power differences are absent or unclear, and we experience less distress and work more effectively.

Gruenfeld and Tiedens suggest that we prefer hierarchies because they are effective for sorting people based on different skills and reduce ambiguity. The upshot is that although good bosses—especially in creative places—do encourage input and delegate decisions, little evidence suggests that the need or desire for bosses—and bosses of bosses—will disappear anytime soon.

So the challenge is not to reinvent management. Rather it is to find ways to dampen the known drawbacks of pecking orders and amplify the positive elements. That is what great bosses do and have always done.

The Google experience is instructive. In 2009, Lazlo Block, vice president of People Operations, launched a study called Project Oxygen to figure out the differences between the best and the worst bosses at Google. Since Google was first founded about fifteen years ago, its leaders believed that technical expertise was the most crucial quality of a great boss and that since such smart people worked there, a boss’s job was pretty much to leave people alone unless they asked for technical help. Project Oxygen revealed insights that surprised Google’s leaders, but it fit with thousands of studies—including many that shaped Good Boss, Bad Boss

Good Boss, Bad BossTechnical expertise ranked dead last among the predictors of a boss’s effectiveness. Instead, as The New York Times reported, “What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”

Google is an evidence-based place. So they boiled down their list of what good bosses do into just a few key factors, and they now work intensely with underperforming bosses to change their behavior. If you are a boss, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by considering Google’s journey.

Don’t believe the hype about reinventing management. As over fifty years of research shows, treating employees with respect, encouraging them to participate and to make suggestions, and listening to them are as important as ever. The same is true about setting a clear direction, making decisions, and taking charge.

[Image: Flickr user D Flam]

Add New Comment

4 Comments