Earnings and Yearnings: Dear Leaders

Last spring, The New York Observer published a short piece congratulating a big-time TV news producer on her retirement and lauding her plan to spend her twilight years as a guidance counselor. In response to this seemingly benign "Oh, isn't that nice!" online story, more than 200 comments popped up, the majority of them from the woman's former employees. They claimed she was a foul-mouthed, cliquish bully and that the story, showing her in such a heroic light, was a sham.

The commenters' vitriol and hurt poured down the screen as they swapped tales from the battlefield. Online (and especially anonymous) rants are by nature overly emotional. But the specifics—"She constantly threw people under the bus... If you were in her 'popular' group it was OK to take two-hour lunches to go shopping, One woman I know still has nightmares about her, 10 years after leaving the network"—reveal a crucial truth about bosses: They wield huge power over our psyches.

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In his new book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Learn from the Worst, Robert Sutton, Ph.D., catalogs this disproportionate effect that managers have on well-being. A meta-analysis found, for example, that "about 75 percent of the workforce reports that their immediate supervisor is the most stressful part of their job."

But a good boss, on the other hand, is a health boon: If you've got one, "you have at least a 20 percent lower risk of getting a heart attack, and if you stay with your boss for four years, you have at least a 39 percent lower risk."

For the majority of managers, who presumably want to fall on the heart-attack-reducing side of the scale, Sutton shares a key insight: Good bosses know themselves. And yet, just being in power is a deterrent to self-awareness, making it especially difficult for leaders to correctly ascertain the impact their behaviors and policies have on their employees. "It turns out that followers, peers, superiors, and customers consistently provide better information about a boss's strengths, weaknesses, and quirks than the boss herself," Sutton writes.

Think of the office as a chimpanzee habitat. "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." Case in point: Which is more valuable—gossip about the CEO's love life or the janitor's? Tracking people who control our basic welfare is a smart survival (and career) strategy.

Cognizant bosses who recognize this asymmetry of awareness and information will benefit by being more careful about their actions and words, and more sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of their charges. Sutton suggests they consciously break out of the power bubble by asking for direct input and feedback.

That doesn't mean they should turn into touchy-feely group therapy leaders, though. Moderately assertive bosses are rated as most effective. Underlings don't like an indecisive ruler. They also don't like being judged on a million things at once, so good bosses pick a few metrics by which employees will be evaluated and clearly explain what those are.

Sutton holds up Pixar animation director Brad Bird as an exemplary leader. When he was hired to take over the movie The Iron Giant, Bird announced his modus operandi: "We're going to look at your scenes in front of everybody. Everyone will get humiliated and encouraged together...I'm going to take my shot at what I think will improve a scene, but if you see something different, go ahead and disagree." A good boss who continually and constructively pushes employees to do their best, without micromanaging and interfering, could even join that rarest of species: a beloved boss.

Managing Up

Four questions for PT Blogger Robert Sutton on how to bring out the best in your boss:

  • Is it smart to gently criticize your manager?

    Managing up is about experimentation. Test the waters and see. But be careful about negative self-fulfilling prophecies when dealing with your boss. If you assume she won't react well, you may present it in a way that triggers displeasure—and then your fear will be confirmed.

  • Tell us something about bosses that we might not know.

    You know the main thing that comes out when I do talks and workshops with CEOs? They all say they're lonely. They might have thousands of people working there with them, but they're lonely. That's partly because as leaders, it's not as acceptable for them to disclose personal things.

  • What if you have multiple bosses, some of whom have competing agendas?

    That's difficult. I once got emails from two academic deans that contained completely opposite instructions. I forwarded them to both and wrote, "Let me know when you decide." If both bosses are reasonable, talk to them about it. But if one or both are incompetent, or assholes, you may have to go to someone else in the organization. And bond with your peers. They can vouch for you down the road if necessary.

  • What if you feel neglected by your boss?

    Remember, most bosses also have bosses. They are busy focusing on their higher-ups. It doesn't mean yours doesn't want you to succeed. Just make more of an effort to take care of your boss and she'll take care of you.

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