The Real Reason for Bad Bosses

My Stanford colleague Bob Sutton has a new book coming out on how to be a good boss and what behaviors make a bad boss. Like the best of the leadership literature, it is both research-based and sensible. It also sheds some light on why it's so hard to follow the best practices for good managers and move up the ladder at the same time.

The book's prescriptions include the classic adage, tell the truth. In one example, Sutton tells the tale of a CEO who alienated most of the company's top management team by denying that he was pursuing an opportunity at another organization. When that CEO didn't get the job and further dissembled, saying he had stayed because of loyalty to the current team, trust was broken and people left the company.

Sutton's book and much research show how truly terrible the work environment is for many people. Employee disengagement is high, the Conference Board reports job satisfaction is at an all-time low, and many people would look for a new job at the first opportunity.

Research literature shows the importance of supervisor-subordinate relationships. They are one of the principal drivers of employee engagement or its opposite, turnover. So why are there so many bad bosses? After all, each year companies spend billions on leadership training and development. And the number of books on how to be a better, more effective leader must be approaching infinity, with much of the advice around for literally decades.

One answer to this question comes from the example cited above. Although disguised in Bob's book, he told me who it was. Suffice it to say that in this instance, and in numerous others, although the boss may be "bad," that boss has been extraordinarily successful and is continuing to thrive by any reasonable measures.

That's because numerous studies point to an inherent contradiction between the prescriptions about how to get the most from others on the one hand and the realities of what it takes to build your own reputation and power on the other. While being positive, supportive, and warm often gets the best from subordinates, being critical and even nasty results in more attributions of intelligence and competence. Because people usually get hired (and promoted) on the basis of how competent they appear, companies, sometimes unintentionally, reward precisely the opposite behaviors that would make someone a good boss.

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy's article, "Just Because I'm Nice, Don't Assume I'm Dumb" nicely captures the dilemma. Research shows that people who want to appear smart engage in more critical behavior than those who want to appear nice or a control group. Other research on group perception also shows evidence of a compensation effect, so that being rated positively on one dimension is likely to lead to being seen much less positively on a second dimension. Groups are perceived as either warm and incompetent or competent and cold.

The conflict between the behaviors required to be a good boss and the actions often necessary to attain and hold onto leadership positions helps explain why many people find that their best opportunities for obtaining coaching and mentoring come from people not at the most senior levels nor on the fast track. Unless people can overcome the oft-observed psychological tendency to see the traits of warmth and competence as negatively related and softness as a sign of weakness, there seem to be very slim prospects for implementing all of the good advice about how to be a be a better leader.