Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best … and Learn from the Worst

Human Resource Management International Digest

ISSN: 0967-0734

Article publication date: 19 July 2011



(2011), "Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best … and Learn from the Worst", Human Resource Management International Digest, Vol. 19 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best … and Learn from the Worst

Article Type: Suggested reading From: Human Resource Management International Digest, Volume 19, Issue 5

Robert I. Sutton, Business Plus, 2010, ISBN: 9780446556088

Memo to senior leadership: read Robert Sutton’s Good Boss, Bad Boss before you award anyone a job that grants authority over other employees.

Not only does this book describe how bad bosses’ expressions of that authority are associated with decreases in subordinates’ physical and mental health, increases in their problems at home, greater turnover and less creativity, it also explains how bad bosses engender declines in productivity and mounting legal costs for organizations. What is more, this book is worthy of top-management attention because it plots a path toward remedy.

Using engaging stories drawn from a wide variety of episodes in organizations, every one of Good Boss, Bad Boss’s nine chapters portrays the behavior, attitudes and work habits of bad bosses that may be causing these regrettable consequences. But it also details how the good bosses have been associated with opposite outcomes.

No single list of bullet points, string of declarative sentences or psychometrically derived, measurable indices offered by Sutton, a Stanford Professor of Management Science, defines the distinction between bad and good bosses. But when I finished this book’s 300 or so pages, I certainly believed that I knew how to distinguish between the two.

Lively, accessible writing had drawn wonderfully clear word pictures. Bad bosses give themselves away by being uncivil or insidious. They insult subordinates, scream, shout and exercise their authority top-down, demanding obedience while ignoring and sometimes even punishing subordinates’ inquiries. Good bosses are no less commanding than their bad counterparts, but they generally go about their organizational problem-solving and decision-making without treating subordinates disrespectfully.

For different reasons some readers may carp about the way Sutton’s book distinguishes good bosses from bad ones. For example, I can easily imagine a few scholarly colleagues complaining: “How can members of the two categories be empirically compared in the absence of an unequivocal objective metric that allows me to unambiguously place individual bosses into one group or the other?” Then there are the practitioners who will demand: “Boil it down! Cut out the qualifiers. Enumerate the two, three or 30 things that a good boss always does so that I can always do them also!”

Sutton’s narrative approach to building distinctions between the groups does not bother me. I applaud the honesty of his reasoning. He writes: “The moves that great bosses make are too complex, varied, messy and unpredictable to be captured by any single theme, slogan or set of steps.” And the book that he wrote fulfills that sentence’s tacit promise. By the time that the last page is turned, it provides readers with a well-rounded sense of good bosses’ complex, messy and unpredictable behavior.

Of course, bad bosses need more than a lesson in good-boss behavior in order to change their ways. So, what can be done to change bad-boss behavior into good-boss behavior?

Sutton’s solution, partially revealed by his book’s subtitle, How to Be the Best … and Learn from the Worst, targets individual bosses and relies heavily on self-correction guided by a series of thoughts that he offers throughout the book’s text as well as in a number of excellent sidebars.

Good Boss, Bad Boss does not tell bosses how they ought to be. Instead, it invites them to think about how they are. More than an exhortation to abandon their wanton ways or a dry exposition about the rights and wrongs of boss behavior, this book is an intervention. It has the potential to ignite self-insight through an accessible, extensive array of evidence and illustration describing what good and bad bosses do that could encourage the bad ones to ask themselves: “Where do I stand when it comes to good and bad behavior? How does my behavior compare to that of good and bad bosses? What is my impact on subordinates?”

Some bad bosses will answer these questions honestly, see the discrepancy between how they are and how they should be and make changes. Others, unfortunately, armored by self-deception, will deny discrepancy and make no change. It’s a liability of the individual-boss-as-target change strategy that Sutton actually recognizes and briefly discusses. His solution – the tough, self-directed questions for bad bosses and the compelling illustrations of good-boss behavior – is as good as it gets, but there are other strategies for changing bad-boss behavior that complement the individual-boss-as-target change strategy.

One such approach is alluded to by Sutton when he reports on two cases, the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s reluctance to use layoffs as a means of managing a financial downturn and the effects of peer culture on the University of Michigan football team. This perspective recognizes that some individual boss behavior is regulated by an organization’s policies and procedures and the social norms they produce.

Senior leadership needs to understand the consequences of policy and procedure that, for example:

  • erect reward systems that give some bosses access to special privileges available to no other employees;

  • authorize and encourage bosses’ micromanagement and surveillance not to correct deficient work behavior but to punish it;

  • allow bosses to ignore, even stifle, employees’ input on matters where they have experience and knowledge;

  • permit bosses to react indifferently to employee needs that arise from their roles in families and other on-organizational groups; and

  • dictate the use of dismissal as a first resort.

The point is that changing individual behavior sometimes requires changing organizational policy, procedure and the social norms they produce. This approach to change applied to the good-boss, bad-boss problem is not undemanding. For example, the interventions that may be required to change policy and procedure are potentially time consuming and may produce results that are more financially burdensome and less efficient than allowing sub-optimal management behavior to persist. Despite these concerns, fixing the organization is likely to constrain the dysfunctional behavior of bad bosses by regularly providing these harm-doers with information about their behavior and its undesirable consequences while simultaneously giving their victims a voice; not an option Sutton addresses.

Readers who want a piercing discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of alternative strategies for changing boss behavior will not find what they are looking for in this book. But they are not Sutton’s target audience. He wrote a book for organization leaders and for bosses who want to improve their dealings with their subordinates, and he did it very well, raising the bar for those who understand that Sutton’s focus on individual bosses as a target of change is not the whole story.

Reviewed by Harvey A. Hornstein. Formerly a Faculty Member in the Program in Social and Organizational Psychology at Teachers’ College, Columbia University, and Chairman of that institution’s Department of Psychology, he now operates a private organizational consulting practice for firms in a wide variety of industries ( He has written nine books, including Brutal Bosses and Their Prey (1997).

A longer version of this review was originally published in Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 39 No. 1, 2011.

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