It's a term that neatly sums up the clueless and insensitive Michael Scott, the fictional manager played by Steve Carell in The Office. But for Stanford University management professor Robert Sutton, it's also a perfect word to describe an increasing number of real-life bosses who make work-life hell for those they lead.
Prof. Sutton is author of The No Asshole Rule, which recommended that organizations weed out jerks. Now he takes aim at leaders in his new book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, warning them they must recognize and tame their "bosshole behaviour," or risk getting the sack.
Why don't bad bosses realize that they're jerks?
Humans are not good at identifying their flaws. And the more incompetent people are, the more they overestimate their talents. Research shows that when people get power, they spend increasing amounts of time thinking about their own needs and less time thinking about others.
I spent a year-and-a-half reviewing all the research I could find on the topic of leadership, almost 3,000 studies. They consistently show that successful bosses who gain respect of employees know not only how to drive people to perform and get results, but also consistently work on motivating and inspiring those they lead. By adopting the habits of good bosses and shunning the sins of bad bosses, anyone can do a better job. But at the same time … all the technique and coaching in the world won't make a boss great, unless he or she accepts that fact that there's a little bit of jerk in everyone.
Why do you say we all risk being "bossholes"?
We all can become overbearing or be inconsiderate if we are tired or under stress. And everyone is battle-weary these days. The challenges of the past two years have put leaders under more time pressure and they face demands that they get more out of those they manage.
If leaders become jerks now, the people they lead are likely to be less willing to tell them about it, because they are afraid to lose their jobs. So bad behaviour can feed on itself in a vicious cycle. Still, the good news is that the most recent surveys show only 12 to 15 per cent of employees at any one time will report they have a truly abusive boss.
What do the best bosses have in common?
Research shows that the best bosses are assertive, but know when to push and when to back off, and how to read the responses of people and make adjustments to get them to perform well in different situations. There are a whole range of skills good bosses have to develop, but foremost they need to become good listeners. Good bosses encourage people to give them feedback and don't launch into arguments or get mad at people when they think someone is wrong.
Which bad bosses are least likely to change?
There are two types that recur in studies that are pretty intractable. One I call clueless - the type of person who will continue to abuse and be insensitive and push people to assert their power … They take it as a personal attack if someone tells them they might have a problem.
Then there is the strategic jerk, who may behave sensitively in pressure-free situations but takes advantage of others when a victory or meeting one of their objectives is at stake, because they always want to win at all costs. In many cases, these people not only need to win, they need to make sure that the losers are left feeling demeaned.
Even if such rotten apples consistently achieve results they are ultimately destructive because they are distracting, draining and deflating to those they lead. Management shouldn't wait to see these characters mend their ways on their own. If persistent feedback fails, I suggest the only option is to show them the door.
How should companies weed out bossholes?
Organizations should have zero tolerance for bosses who achieve their goals by abusing others. The message from management should be: If you are not going to shape up, you are not going to have a job. But many organizations are afraid to admit they have problem managers. All leaders must do regular self-reviews of their actions and get feedback on how others are responding to them. And all organizations should set up a review process that doesn't tolerate jerk behaviour from managers, and give managers help and regular training to be the best bosses possible.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
BEING THE BEST
The best bosses share a set of beliefs that bad bosses either reject or more often simply have never even thought about, Robert Sutton says. Here's what it takes to be the best:
Fallibility: Good bosses accept that they don't have all the answers and regularly ask for feedback from peers and those they lead.
Flexibility: They listen to others and are willing to change their mind.
Reliability: They make work predictable, rather than regularly leaping from idea to idea in search of a magical or breakthrough approach.
Focus on small wins: They have ambitious, well-defined goals, but break tasks into small steps so staff feel they make progress every day.
Balance: They strive to be assertive enough to motivate employees without becoming overbearing.
Professionalism: They know their personal foibles and avoid imposing them on the team.