Thursday, July 08, 2010

Short notes on Bob Sutton Webinar

I registered and listened to the webinar featuring Bob Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss and The No Asshole Rule (which I read. You can find my note on it here). Besides the fact that I happen to find the work interesting, I think that some of what Mr. Sutton writes is very applicable to librarianship. Plus, the webinar was free. These are then my notes from the presentation.

From the presentation's opening:

  • "Some things are still a mystery to me, and others are much too clear." --Jimmy Buffett. The quote was used to open the presentation.
  • One mystery to Mr. Sutton is how to do a good performance evaluation. I will say that it is a mystery to me as well. In fact, Sutton has blogged on that very topic. He said during the presentation that, overall, the academic literature on the topic is not very encouraging, but that you can find some stuff on questions to use that may be good.
  • Effective leaders are self-obsessed without being egomaniacs. The effective leaders think about what they do because they have chosen to be concerned with how they come across to others. The problem is that bosses are usually very oblivious to their subordinates. The good bosses are less oblivious. In the meantime, the subordinates are hyper-focused on the boss.
  • Bosses, or those who are promoted to management, often face the problem of power poisoning. The power poisoning is evident in patterns such as the boss only focusing on his own needs and concerns and in acting as if the rules did not apply to him.
  • Bosses who focus on who they lead tend to be better bosses.
Some themes: Sutton discussed the following themes:

  • Assertiveness. Good bosses are moderately assertive. They know when to push and when to back off, which is an art. I will say that it can be an art that a good number of library administrators fail to achieve. Sutton suggests that assertiveness is more important than charisma.
  • The best management is sometimes no management at all. This does not mean getting rid of all managers. What it means is that managers often overestimate their own value to the organization. They don't realize the damage they cause by their constant watching and micromanaging. Using the words of William Coyne, after you plant a seed in the ground, you don't dig it up every week to see how it is doing.
  • Use the "small wins" strategy. Long term goals are essential, but when people do not know the smaller steps, people will tend to freeze and/or freak out. I was reminded of some long term "planning" sessions I have witnessed or was involved in, too much long term, not enough specific steps. Sutton says that the best managers break big goals into the smaller, doable steps. This will increase the confidence in the workers as they succeed from one task to another towards the larger goal.
  • Wisdom. The best bosses dance on the edge of self-confidence, but they have a healthy dose of self-doubt and humility. This serves to avoid arrogance. Balancing this is a rare talent as well. Personally, I tend to have a bit more respect for a boss who can show a degree of humility and knows when he or she needs to ask a question, get input from others, and actually listen to it than just bluff their way with bravado. Quote from Jeffrey Katzenberger, the Dreamworks CEO, referring to how he has changed from simply going into meetings, being the first one to talk and overall dictating to others: "I don't like to go first anymore. I actually like to hear what other people have to say first." I have to say that I am like that. Very often I will sit in a meeting, listen to the others, and then speak after I have heard what the others have said. Sometimes I may not say anything at the meeting, but I will go back to my office, ponder it, then contact whoever I need to speak to accordingly. It can have an advantage, but it can also give people the impression you are just not actively collaborating (I had a boss actually tell me that once, that being too quiet may not be a good thing. Take it for what it's worth).
  • Leading a good fight. Good bosses fight in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Fight as if you were right, listen as if you are wrong. Good bosses nurture this type of respectful environment. The key is leading constructive conflict, but this requires people's trust (that is another reason I may start out quiet. I am checking to see who can be trusted). Bosses need to understand that gaining people's trust can take time.
The Stars and the Rotten Apples:
  • One way to evaluate an organization is to ask who are the stars. Do they undermine or enhance collective performance? In the organization, how are the stars defined? If the way to the top in the organization is to stomp and step on others, and if that behavior is actually rewarded, then you have trouble.
  • The bad apples. This includes the deadbeats, the downers, and the assholes. Sutton says that they can bring down performance in your organization by 30%-40% when compared to teams without bad apples. Research shows that, between adding new stars and getting rid of the bad apples (both are fair options), getting rid of the bad apples is much better for the organization. Why is this? For one, when you have bad apples you spend too much time managing the assholes and dealing with their issues, taking away from what you should be doing. Second, assholes and their ilk are contagious.
  • You should strive then to bring in stars (a positive) and get rid of your bad apples (the negative). Preferable, if you have to choose, to eliminate the negatives.
Does the boss have his workers back? The best bosses protect their people from intrusions, distractions, idiots, and idiocy of every type. I think a good number of library and university administrators could learn from this idea.
  • Idiocy from on high. The good boss will do what it takes to protect workers from this problem.
  • Ignoring rules and procedures. The good boss will tell workers, when necessary, what rules and procedures can be safely ignored and still function.
  • Changing bad rules and procedures. The good boss, when this is possible, will work to change any bad rules and procedures that hinder his workers from doing their work and being successful.
  • Taking the heat for your people. The good boss deals with the idiots himself so that others can keep working (instead of simply passing them on and being blissfully ignorant).
  • Battling enemies and idiots on their behalf. The good boss, depending on the local politics and his mojo (so to speak), will do this. It may be risky, but at times it has to be done. As boss, you must be sensitive to what is really important and what can be ignored.
Two diagnostic questions to ask yourself if you are a boss to see how self-aware you are and how you are doing. And you should be honest when you answer them. I particularly liked the second one. Often when workers leave for a new job and references are checked, the question is if the person would be rehire-able. I think this makes a good question for bosses:

  1. Do you know what it feels like to work for you?
  2. If they had a choice, would your people elect to work for you again?

From the Q&A segment at the end:

  • On dealing with a bad apple. Start with the assumption that many people lack self-awareness, so begin by providing feedback to the bad apple. Second, work on coaching once the person has been made aware. If this fails, then you give them a warning. After that, it's either you try to find a new role for them in the organization, or you fire them. However, do not start with the assumption that the bad apple is aware of the damage they may be doing. People overall can really lack awareness.
  • The General Electric model. If you have a good performer, but he is bad for the overall values and culture of the organization, get rid of them. If you have a performer who objectively may not be as good, but he is excellent for the values and culture of the organization, they put all resources available on teaching, coaching, and saving the worker for the organization to improve performance.
  • The worse a boss is, the more likely the subordinates will lie to the boss. At this point, things like anonymous feedback, or even bringing outside consultants, become a necessity. A feared boss will be less likely to take honest feedback well; this refers to the "shoot the messenger" syndrome. Even nicer bosses can have this problem of subordinates who avoid giving the boss bad news.
  • Bosses who lead good creative teams tend to ask the least questions. This is because they let their teams do the work, so they give the team trust, leeway to break rules now and then, so on, and get results.
  • A deviant (I think this refers to someone unconventional) in an organization can be useful. However, an asshole is not.
  • A bad boss in your career can be useful, if for no other reason than he or she can teach you how not to behave.

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