Interview with Bob Sutton, PhD on His Book ‘Good Boss, Bad Boss,’ Toyota, Southwest, HP, and More [Podcast]

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Episode #97 is a discussion with Bob Sutton, a Stanford University Professor of Management Science and Engineering and the best-selling author of The No A-hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. Other books by Bob include The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action and Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company.

Here, we talk about his new book, due out in September, called Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst.

In this podcast, the conversation weaves through Toyota, HP, Intel, Southwest, and other companies as we'll find parallels and complements between different management approaches, including Lean. Stay to the end to find out what company Bob thinks is surprisingly good and weeding out “A-holes” from their organization.

To point others to this, use the simple URL: www.leanblog.org/97. You can find Bob and his blog at www.BobSutton.net.

For earlier episodes, visit the main Podcast page, which includes information on how to subscribe via RSS or via Apple Podcasts.

If you have feedback on the podcast, or any questions for me or my guests, you can email me at leanpodcast@gmail.com or you can call and leave a voicemail by calling the “Lean Line” at (817) 993-0630 or contact me via Skype id “mgraban.” Please give your location and your first name. Any comments (email or voicemail) might be used in follow ups to the podcast.

Automated Transcript:

Mark Graban:
Hi, this is Mark Graban. This is episode number 97 of the Lean Blog podcast for our August twelveth, 2010 have a very interesting guest today, a bit outside of the normal lean world that I think you find a lot of parallels in his work. Our guest is Bob Sutton. He's a professor at Stanford University. He is a well known author and co author of a number of books, including the Knowing, Doing Gap, weird ideas that work, most recently the best selling book the no Ahole Rule, which is just a slightly edited title.

Mark Graban:
And today we're going to be talking about his work and his upcoming book, due out in September, called Good Boss, Bad Boss, how to be the best and learn from the worst. So I hope you enjoy our discussion again. Here is Bob Sutton. I was very happy to receive a galley copy of the upcoming book Good Boss, bad boss that we're going to be talking about today. Bob, thanks for taking time out to join us.

Bob Sutton:
Thanks. Great to talk.

Mark Graban:
So I was wondering if you could start by telling listeners a little bit first about your previous book. We'll call it the no Aholes rule. Maybe how you define an ahole, the response you got to the book and why you chose to follow it up with this book, considering it's not a.

Bob Sutton:
Direct oh sure, Mark. So the way I would define somebody who is sort of a certified jerk, or maybe even a temporary one, is somebody who consistently leaves other people feeling demeaned and deenergized. And there's lots of different ways in which this can happen, everything from direct insults to actually more subtle digs and ignoring people and staring at them. And the reason I got interested in this book on bosses, I guess there's two reasons. One is when I go back and look at the book, I've been either studying about or writing about management for at least a good 25 years.

Bob Sutton:
I've always been interested in management in various ways. And the second thing is that as I poured through some 3000 emails that I got in response to the book, the book about jerks, the Noejo rule, I realized that sort of the central character in just about all the emails and most of the conversations I had with people was the boss. So it was either somebody had a good boss who was a jerk and wanted to, I mean, a bad boss was a jerk and wanted to get a good boss or somebody who wanted to be a better boss or less of a jerk. And one thing that's also related to that is that as I started digging into the conversations, I realized that people not only wanted a boss who wasn't a jerk, they wanted a boss who actually could get stuff done and can mentor them. So this notion of sort of competent and benevolent, or a boss who both helps you perform well and your team perform well, but at the same time treats you with dignity and respect was the theme that I kept seeing over and over again.

Bob Sutton:
So since I have the advantage of having probably way too much job security, I spent a couple of years working on this book.

Mark Graban:
Yeah. And I like that point, that being nice, if you will, might not necessarily mean being effective or being a good boss. And so as I was reading the book, it struck me there were a lot of parallels to what you laid out as a framework for being a quote unquote, good boss. And the classic Toyota management approach of the lean approach. You talk about having respect for people, the need to be both competent and benevolent, to drive for results, and to be people focused.

Mark Graban:
Can you talk about that dual nature? And maybe why so many people miss out on.

Bob Sutton:
It really is interesting because it sort of goes both ways. First of all, where I probably came on that from two different places. One, one of my mentors in graduate school was a guy named Richard Hackman. He's now at the Harvard psychology department. He's an expert on group effectiveness.

Bob Sutton:
And that was always kind of a theme in what he did. And then for this book, when I started reading stuff about leadership and sort of leadership in pre industrial tribes and the like, that was the definition that came out sort of over and over again. And when I realized the kind of group that I would want to be in, the kind of leader I would want to be, to me, that embraces both, because you do want somebody competent and you do want somebody with good values. And one thing that you said, which is really important, and I don't know the stuff in lean particularly well. I know other companies that strive for this, is that situation where people are nice, but they're not competent, is really a dangerous place to be in.

Bob Sutton:
So, in fact, just sort of at this moment, the piece that I've been working on, which hopefully it'll appear in Harvard Business Review as kind of a blog post, it's with a former HP executive. This guy's name is Web McKinney. His last job at HP was implementing the HP compact merger. So very senior guy, and he was there about 30 years. And so what the post we're working on sort of says as well, if you look back at sort of the good old days at Hewlett and Packard, sort of in its prime, which ideas could you apply to other companies for them to be effective?

Bob Sutton:
And then we were talking. We said we should also talk about the downside. And the downside is very consistent with this notion that at times they were such a nice and supportive culture that sometimes people who were incompetent but were nice, they had a lot of trouble dealing with in terms of getting rid of them, giving them negative performance reviews. And that was sort of the Achilles heel or the biggest problem with the culture. The culture was generally functional, but it was a problem and caused, I mean.

Mark Graban:
People have always described to me the Toyota notion of respect for people. It's more complex than just being nice. It includes things challenging people to perform to their peak ability. And one thing you wrote about, and you talk about other companies, intel came to mind. I know a lot of people who work at intel.

Mark Graban:
In your book, you talk about the right way to fight. Intel has an expression called constructive conflict.

Bob Sutton:
Right.

Mark Graban:
Can you talk a little bit about what you see and what you write about is the right way to fight and why that's helpful?

Bob Sutton:
Well, first of all, intel is interesting because I still think they're the only company I know of that trains 100% of new employees in constructive conflict. So that's kind of cool. By constructive conflict, where this really comes from for me initially, is an academic literature on conflict in groups, which shows, essentially, especially for creative work, the most effective teams fight in an atmosphere of mutual respect. And the worst teams fight because they hate each other. And then if you're in between, in conflict, you don't really fight at all, then you're not as effective.

Bob Sutton:
So this notion in creative work, you've got to teach people how to fight. So this idea of fighting as if you're right and listening as if you're wrong is a key element. And probably, I guess, the guy I've met who is most into this, and you can even see video of it as Brad Bird, who was the Academy Award winning director of both the Incredibles. And, and I was just looking at them again the other day. If you look at the extra materials on the incredibles dvds, there's actually some great arguments and fights and including, there's a great fight between him and sort of like he was the director about money, about how much money they should spend and schedule.

Bob Sutton:
And Brad Bird was, what was it? The guy was saying, we've got to get you across the finish line. And Brad Bird was saying, I want to get across the finish line first. And this was sort of great. So that's a guy who is really constructive about in his team and talking with him and other people work with him, sort of famous for that.

Bob Sutton:
But it's a difficult thing, managerial skill to learn. It's not something people are always necessarily.

Mark Graban:
Good at changing directions a little bit. One thing organizations maybe also are often not good at is accepting failure and being able to learn from that. And one thing you talk about in the book that, again, reminds me of lean and the continuous improvement cycles is this need for psychological safety to be able to fail and learn. Can you talk about why that's important, how a good boss can enable, encourage that, or how a bad boss might stifle boy?

Bob Sutton:
Well, you, I think, know a lot more about the lean stuff than I do. But in terms of identifying mistakes, reporting mean, I think that's one of the great things that Lean has done. And in fact, one of the places where I really think that the lean sort of approach has been very constructive on failures is in hospitals. There's some emerging research about this, that the best hospitals are ones where people openly discuss failure. They have this saying, forgive and remember, which we steal in the book, that you forgive people for making mistakes and you remember so people can learn.

Bob Sutton:
And you also remember, because if they keep making mistakes, you can get rid of. Actually, on a personal note, about four months ago, I had a major heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, and they've been really leaned heavily by a bunch of groups, and I was very impressed with their commitment to if something went wrong, immediately dealing with it, talking about it openly, making it safe for people to talk about. And there's just sort of this lack of fear that you could just feel in the place. That was very impressive.

Mark Graban:
Now, I remember on your blog writing about your experiences at the Cleveland clinic, and you may be aware they've hired some people from Ford and other manufacturing companies to teach this management system. I'm glad to hear it. Sounds like a positive vibe about the culture. Is that fair to say?

Bob Sutton:
Yeah. The degree to which, and having dealt with other hospitals, I won't name the degree to which it was not a fear based place in the degree to which you could sort of feel that people would talk openly about mistakes and problems was very impressive. One thing also that's consistent with the quality movement is they'd all wear these buttons that said patients first and actually mean it. I think in many hospitals I've been involved with, it's either money first or my research career first. But they really did not act like that.

Bob Sutton:
There was a sense of collective learning that was a big part of it. I didn't know that they had brought in quality people, but I've been in companies where there's a quality movement where you sort of feel like it's just sort of pushed to the side or there's cynicism about it. But I did not have that sense there at all. I think it was really helping. The process there very well ran place and quite compassionate place, too.

Bob Sutton:
So it wasn't just sort of like my big concern would be like a heartless factory, but I would say it was a compassionate factory.

Mark Graban:
Right. Well, that's good to hear. And I think that's certainly the goal of not to get too sidetracked on this. But the leading lean organizations start with a sense of purpose. And in healthcare, a big part of that purpose is a caring environment and enable that through the lean approach.

Bob Sutton:
That's very impressed.

Mark Graban:
So you mentioned emerging research, and I wanted to ask you, do you think there's some hope? Healthcare talks about evidence based medicine you write about, and Daniel Pink, another author I really like, you mentioned this phrase, evidence based management, where maybe there is emerging research in psychology or management science, evidence about what works with people, what doesn't work right. Are you confident that we can move beyond managers kind of using the tribal knowledge or winging it and using research to drive how they manage?

Bob Sutton:
That's a great question. So I don't know whether you know, but in, I guess, 2006, my co author, Jeff Heffer and I published a book called Hard Facts on evidence based management and actually spent about, I think I spent five years working on that darn book. So I spent a lot of time talking about. So my perspective on evidence based management is. It's actually funny.

Bob Sutton:
We're using the medical analogy in some ways similar that I do believe, and I can show you examples that bosses who sort of look at what works best in other places can adopt it and make better decisions. One of the things that, just as an example, let's just take the notion there's pretty good evidence that organizations that have simple strategies are more effective than those that have complex strategies. That's something that's not that hard for people to implement. But the other part about this, and you're talking about the tribal knowledge, I like that. I also think that being a manager is not something you could have somebody who consulted and gave people advice about the absolute best way to do everything based on peer reviewed studies.

Bob Sutton:
But if the person had not mastered the art of essentially practicing the craft and putting it into practice, they're just as useless or worse than a. So the way I would describe management at its. And I'm thinking of some really quite sharp managers. Some of the folks at Intuit have impressed me in particular, like Scott Cook, one of the founders, or Brad Smith, who's now head of. And they practice in a way that I would sort of describe as kind of like an evidence based craft, which is the evidence guides you.

Bob Sutton:
But there's a point where human judgment and experience cannot be sort of like, replaced. That's, I think the direction I would hope that management could go would be to be more of an evidence based craft.

Mark Graban:
Well, and again, there are sometimes striking parallels with what medical professionals, doctors will say, trying to figure out as a profession the balance between art and science.

Bob Sutton:
Right. In fact, I think that's exactly the same sort of things. But there's also certain things that you know about medicine. I mean, just for example, one of the most robust findings, which I think is also related to management, is that the more times that a doctor in a hospital has done an operation, the less they screw up. This is one of the most well documented findings.

Bob Sutton:
That's the kind of thing that should influence everybody's decision. It's just not that complicated. But there's other things, like how things look and how things feel. In those cases, it's just not replaceable with pictures or anything else. You have to have gone through it.

Bob Sutton:
So it's the same thing. Mergers are a great example. There's some people are actually pretty good at implementing mergers in some firms and some that are pretty bad. But having gone through it, I mean, Cisco, during the.com boom, was incredibly good at buying companies and integrating them, and they're still actually pretty good at it. And one reason was they simply had done so many.

Bob Sutton:
So I don't think there's any substitute for experience and remembering what you learned, of course, consistent with the quality movement.

Mark Graban:
Yeah. One other phrase, I think, kind of a clever, memorable phrase. In the book, you talked about the need for bosses to be on the lookout for what you called downers, deadbeats, and aholes. Can you tell the listeners a little bit what's behind that?

Bob Sutton:
Sure. So where this comes from, the basis of it is some research, especially summarized in an article. I love this. You always think of academic articles having really complicated titles. The name of this article is bad is stronger than good, and it's in the most prestigious psychology journal.

Bob Sutton:
And essentially what it shows is negative people, negative interactions pack a much bigger wallop, perhaps five, six times more wallop than positive ones. And then you go over to the more the management literature, and the key guy here is a guy named Will Phelps, who did some research on what he called bad apples or rotten apples in the effective group effectiveness. And essentially, when you've got somebody in your group who is lazy, is a jerk, or is depressive, the evidence is that it brings down performance by about 30% to 40% and has a much stronger wallop than if you just brought in, say, sort of like a star. And the stars aren't able to overcome the effect of having somebody who is a jerk or one of these other rotten apples. And there's two reasons.

Bob Sutton:
One is simply the fact that when you've got somebody like that in your group, they're just distracting. You're always having to deal with them. It's like the definition of a high maintenance group member. And the second thing, which is in some ways even worse, is there's all this evidence that negative emotions, negative behaviors, are more contagious than positive ones. So it's sort of like this contagious thing that you've got to contain and get rid of because everybody gets it.

Bob Sutton:
I actually think that it's quite interesting, and it's not like I'm opposed to hiring the best employees you possibly can. But I guess now that we're talking about the quality movement, it's sort of like the defects approach, right? I mean, you've kind of got to get rid of them. And I actually never made this connection till now, but there was this great line, and this was in our book on evidence based management hard Facts, where we quoted a guy named James March, who's arguably the most prestigious living organizational theorist in the academic world. He actually came fairly close to winning the Nobel Prize last time.

Bob Sutton:
And his perspective is that managers are kind of like light bulbs. You have to find one that works. And although there's some differences between the great managers and the good managers, if you look at the studies, and actually he's got a lot of evidence to support this, there isn't really that much difference. But where you really notice is when you have one that's defective, and then you kind of got to get rid of them in the rotten Apple stuff, although not quite that extreme, but it sort of gets you there. And in terms of being a boss, I think that a lot of what bosses need to do this is, I think, very evidence based perspective is, although focusing on the superstars and greatness and all that stuff feels great to say.

Bob Sutton:
If you can just stop doing lousy things and either reform or get rid of lousy people, it looks to me like that's probably more important than striving for greatness. So that what is it instead of good to great? It's not very exciting to say how to stay good, but that might be the key to success rather than striving for greatness at all times. I'm thinking of the organizations. I like Southwest Airlines as sort of a good example.

Bob Sutton:
They spent their entire time just trying to do a bunch of things reasonably well without doing anything absolutely spectacular. And Toyota, until recently, and hopefully they're turning around, is another example.

Mark Graban:
Yeah, it seems that southwest and maybe JetBlue to some extent have put a really big focus on hiring for attitude. So maybe they're trying to filter out the aholes, if you will, from the get go.

Bob Sutton:
Oh, yeah. Especially. I actually know two former heads of HR at Southwest, and Anne Rhodes is one of them. And absolutely, let me sartain, is the other ones. That was absolutely the sort of notion that they screen out jerks.

Bob Sutton:
There's some organizations that don't do that as aggressively. One of them, actually, that I was impressed with since I always had such a negative view of them until I got to know, you know, McKinsey, the, the consulting firm, if you're a selfish solo player, they really have no tolerance for that at all. I actually been pretty impressed by that in terms of getting to know them, because the only way that knowledge can spread across such a large distributed organization that's doing projects all over the world at all time is if you're selfish. It just doesn't work very well. I've been pretty impressed with their intolerance.

Bob Sutton:
Polite intolerance being a polite firm for people who aren't cooperative and the like.

Mark Graban:
And one other question I want to ask you. There were a lot of really interesting ideas in the book and happy to recommend it to people, but something that was just in the news a couple of days ago, and I noticed you blogged about it. You mentioned HP earlier. So it just begs the question of Mark heard the now deposed CEO was known as a boring numbers guy. Was he a closet?

Bob Sutton:
Here's so let me tell you my story about Mark. I blogged about this. The question of how closet he was remains to be. Anyway, so I did a post which will appear in Harvard Business Review in a couple of days on management versus so I said in it, apparently somewhat naively, that, well, an interesting case is you will at Packard, because Carly Farina probably rightly claims that she got the strategy right, but all Mark Hurd has been doing is implementing it. But I think she's short shrifting that.

Bob Sutton:
And so I sort of pointed out, and then I just sent the post to some well-connected Silicon Valley insiders just to check accuracy and stuff like that because they know a lot more about HP than I do in particular. And both of them wrote back independently, and this was probably about a week, so it was announced on Friday. So about four days before the herd scandal was. Announcer one was a woman, the other was a man. They both said, you really don't want to write something where you think something nice about, you know, I have it on very good authority that he's quite abusive, and then he's producing these people they call mini marks, who are just as bad.

Bob Sutton:
And this was not on cutting costs. I mean, there's lots of, you know, for all the complaints about Walmart, Walmart's actually a very civilized place to work. You meet the Walmart senior executives are just really very polite people. I mean, they might be tough to negotiate with, but they treat people with respect. I actually changed the post and took out any reference to HP, and then, boom, this thing comes out four days later.

Bob Sutton:
And then the post, I said, know, sometimes assholes get their just desserts or something, was what one of the people wrote back to hadn't. Even though I'm sitting 4 miles, 3 miles right now from HP headquarters, I just haven't had that much to do with them, especially since Carly left. So I don't know what HP really is now, but I was just sort of stunned. I just thought that what I was saying was perfectly reasonable looking at the stock.

Mark Graban:
I mean, it sounds like a situation where if he was abusive, know that type of person, that if the stock price was good and the business results were good, a lot of companies and organizations are willing to look past some bad boss behavior if the results are good, right?

Bob Sutton:
Yeah. And I think that's absolutely true. And I think it's also the argument that I made in the no ahole rule is that I know very little about them, so this may not apply. I want to be careful. These aren't even allegations.

Bob Sutton:
It's speculations. But if you're an ahole, you better keep performing well and doing things right because your enemies are lying in wait to get mean. That even happened to jobs years ago when they kicked him out of Apple, although Jobs is at least all signs are, has actually gotten better in his old age. He's gotten a little bit more civilized and is surrounded by people who help offset his weaknesses. So he's actually gotten a little bit better with that kind of stuff from what we can tell.

Mark Graban:
Well, thanks for sharing your perspectives there, and thank you for talking about the book. Our guest again has been Bob Sutton, author of the soon to be upcoming book Good Boss, Bad Boss, how to be the best and learn from the worst. And Bob, just as a final thought, if you can, remind people of when the book would be available and where they can find you.

Bob Sutton:
Thanks, Mark.

Mark Graban:
Where they can find you and your blog online.

Bob Sutton:
Oh, sure. So the book is going to be out in about three weeks or so. It'll be shipping even though it in theory comes out September 7, so a little bit earlier. And my blog is called Workmatters and it's Bob Sutton. Net and I seem to be willing to blog about virtually anything that will get me in trouble or not.

Bob Sutton:
So stop by and leave a comment. So thanks so much, Mark.

Mark Graban:
Okay, thank you, Bob. It's been great talking to you.


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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

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