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Being a Good Boss Is Pretty Damn Hard

The job is never done, it is amazingly easy to screw-up, and wielding power over others makes it all even harder because you are being watched so closely. Yet, despite all these hurdles, the best evidence shows that many, if not most, people find their bosses to be competent and compassionate.

Today, September 7th, is the official publication day of Good Boss, Bad Boss. I’ve got an hour or so before I need to run to the airport, and find myself looking back on what I’ve learned from writing the book, talking to people since the book was finished some months back, and all the blogging and comments (especially here at Work Matters and over at HBR Online where I have been developing my list of 12 Things Good Bosses Believe).

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The thing I’ve been fretting over most lately is how hard it is to be a good boss–the job is never done, it is amazingly easy to screw-up, and wielding power over others makes it all even harder because you are being watched so closely (and are prone to tuning-out your followers–the other half of the toxic tandem). Yet, despite all these hurdles, the best evidence shows that many, if not most, people find their bosses to be competent and compassionate. And most bosses I know work extremely hard and are dedicated to improving their skills. Indeed, one of my main motivations for writing Good Boss, Bad Boss was that so many of the managers and executives who I spoke with and who wrote me in response to The No Asshole Rule were so concerned about becoming better at practicing their difficult craft.

When I think of the bosses that I admire and want to be around versus those that I despise and want to avoid if at all possible, the main factor is not their skill at the moment. Rather, it is whether or not they care and are working on core questions like:

1. What does it feel like to work for me?

2. How can get more “in tune” with my followers, peers, bosses, customers, and other people who I deal with?

3. What are my weaknesses and strengths? What can I do to attenuate my weaknesses–what do I need to learn and who can I work with to best offset my drawbacks and blind spots?

In contrast, people who are arrogant and suffering power poisoning–and never admit their weaknesses, let alone try to overcome or dampen them–are in my view, the worst of the worst, regardless of past accomplishments Yes, as I emphasize on this blog and in Chapter 2, the best bosses need to act like they are in charge, to instill confidence in others and themselves. But the bosses I want to be around (and that I believe will triumph in the long run) have the attitude of wisdom, or as rocker Tom Petty put it, are confident but not really sure.

That’s what I am thinking about; I would be curious to hear your perspective on the kinds of bosses you want to be and be around.

Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Follow him at twitter.com/work_matters.

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About the author

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford and a Professor of Organizational Behavior, by courtesy, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Sutton studies innovation, leaders and bosses, evidence-based management, the links between knowledge and organizational action, and workplace civility

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