Work Matters

Straight Talk and Solid Evidence About Organizational Life

Some Bosses Live in a Fool's Paradise

Why It Is So Hard For Bosses To Grasp What It Feels Like to Work For Them

One thing that makes organizations dysfunctional is that bosses so often lack self-awareness. They're out of touch with their effect on their people and not in tune with what it feels like to work for them. But is it really their fault? Doing the research for Good Boss, Bad Boss over the past few years (and drawing on ideas Jeff Pfeffer and I explored in Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense), I've come to appreciate why it's so hard to lead a team. This is a blog post and not a dissertation, so I can't tell the whole story. But here are three of the biggest, and most deeply human, forces conspiring to make people in charge so clueless.

  1. Bosses are, like everyone, self-deluding. All human beings tend to be poor judges of their own actions and accomplishments. We suffer from "self-enhancement bias," whereby we believe we are "better than the rest" and have a hard time accepting or remembering any evidence to the contrary. In one study, for example, 90% of drivers reported that they had "above average" driving skills. In a US College Board survey of nearly a million high school seniors, 70% claimed "above average" leadership skills; only 2 % believed they were "below average." Worse yet, research by Cornell's David Dunning and his colleagues shows that it's the most deeply incompetent people who make the most inflated self-assessments. Bosses aren't immune to this. It turns out that followers, peers, superiors, and customers consistently provide better information about a boss's strengths, weaknesses, and quirks than the boss him or herself. This showed up in a study of naval officers, where peer ratings were found to be good predictors of which officers would receive early promotions — but self-evaluations did not. Fancy yourself as the rare boss who sees yourself as others do? Beware: most people are confident that they make more accurate self-assessments than their peers. Unfortunately, that's just another form of self-aggrandizement.
  2. Bosses are naturally heedless of subordinates. When someone is put in a position of power, subordinate members of the group watch that individual very closely for any sign of a shift in behavior or mood. (Research shows this begins with baboons, as this post explains). But the attention is not reciprocated. To the contrary, the leader turns remarkably oblivious to what the underlings do, and instead, attends to personal needs and desires — and to the next rung of the hierarchy, focusing on what the next higher boss is saying and doing. Elsewhere, I've called this combination of overattentive subordinates and inattentive bosses "the toxic tandem." As Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske discovered in her workplace research (reported in American Psychologist), "Secretaries know more about their bosses than vice versa; graduate students know more about their advisors than vice versa." Fiske suggests 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."
  3. Bosses are insulated from reality. As Jeff Pfeffer and I reported in Hard Facts, extensive research proves that people routinely "shoot the messenger." Bearers of bad news, even when they aren't responsible for it in any sense, tend to be blamed and to have negative feelings directed toward them. The result is the "Mum Effect": subordinates with good survival instincts soften bad news to make it sound better, or avoid passing it along to their bosses at all. Therefore, in a steep hierarchy it is a happier and happier story that reaches the top ranks. Our most disturbing example came courtesy of physics Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman after his investigation of the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. He said he'd asked a group of engineers to estimate the probability that the shuttle's main engine would fail, and their estimates ranged from 1-in-200 to 1-in-300. But when he asked the head of NASA to make the failure-rate estimate, the answer he got was 1-in-100,000. Feynman pointed to this as an illustration of managerial isolation from reality, a problem he believed to be rampant throughout NASA.

When you consider just these three tendencies, you begin to appreciate how easy it is to be a terrible boss. At the same time, you glimpse one of the keys to leading well. A hallmark of good bosses — and I define those as bosses who get stellar performance from their teams while displaying great humanity — is that they are highly cognizant of these dangers. They realize their followers watch, analyze, and react to just about everything they say and do. And they devote real energy to reading expressions, noting behaviors, and making constant adjustments to help their people think independently and express themselves without reservation.

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IDEO Chairman and founder David Kelley, a boss I have studied, worked with, and watched for years, strikes me as someone who is very aware of the effect of his presence. Although no one would accuse him of being pushy or arrogant, he realizes that because he is the boss — and even beyond that, a renowned design thinker and industry leader — too much of the attention in a room threatens to come his way. His mere presence can stifle his people's contributions.

I have seen David do a very clever thing to counter this. In meetings he takes part in, whether they are brainstorming sessions, client meetings, or a work-related gatherings of any kind, he'll start at the front of the room, as expected. But once he's covered the preliminaries — introducing people, setting the tone and goals — he pulls in others to talk and lead, and moves to the side of the room. He jumps back in if the ideas stop flowing, or if some uncomfortable moment needs to be covered, perhaps by telling a little story or joke, but if he's confident the meeting is going well, he drifts to the back of the room and remains silent. Usually, well before the meeting is over, he is able to slip out without saying good-bye.

Of course, David Kelley doesn't leave because he has some higher priority — he does so because he wants the meeting to be as productive as possible. His brilliance is that he is so intensely in tune with the context he has set, and how his words, actions, and little facial expressions affect the room. He keeps making adjustments with the goal of getting the group interacting so well that his presence becomes an unnecessary distraction.

It's a simple example, but a telling one. I would argue that, in general, the best bosses are people who realize that they are prone to suffering blind spots about themselves, their colleagues, and problems in the organization — and who work doggedly to overcome them.

I wonder, what are your thoughts? What have you seen bosses do to counter these potent forces and focus on how their moods and moves might affect their people's performance and well-being? What are the signs of a boss in tune with reality — or alternatively, a boss still living in a fool's paradise?

Follow me on Twitter at work_matters.

Order my new book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the best... and learn from the worst.

Note: This post originally appeared at Harvard Business Review as one of the list 12 Things Good Bosses Believe that I am discussing there this summer.

 

Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist, Stanford professor, and author of five books including bestseller The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss (September, 2010).

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