Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Makes a Good Boss in Unsettling Times?

In an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review, Robert Sutton wrote that “when people – independent of personality – wield power, their ability to lord it over others causes them to (1) become more focused on their own needs and wants; (2) become less focused on others’ needs, wants, and actions; and (3) act as if written and unwritten rules that others are expected to follow don’t apply to them. To make matters worse, many bosses suffer a related form of power poisoning: They believe that they are aware of every important development in the organization (even when they are remarkably ignorant of key facts). This affliction is called “the fallacy of centrality” – the assumption that because one holds a central position, one automatically knows everything necessary to exercise effective leadership,” (p.44).

But does this mean that everyone who has any form of organisational power thinks like that – and does it also mean that they are unable to control their ‘power thoughts’ over the needs for effective leadership - for if so, we are in for a rocky ride in the leadership dimension….Fortunately not, as there are good bosses who respond to the needs of their people in unsettling times.

Sutton highlights how followers devote immense energy to watching, interpreting, and worrying about even the smallest and most innocent moves their superiors make. This is something we’ve long known about animals; studies of baboon troops show that the typical member glances at the alpha male every 20 or 30 seconds to see what he is doing. And although people don’t check what their boss is doing two or three times a minute, this tendency is well documented in human groups, too. As the psychologist Susan Fiske puts it, “Attention is directed up the hierarchy. Secretaries know more about their bosses than vice versa; graduate students know more about their advisors than vice versa.” (p.45). Related studies also show that when people down the pecking order feel threatened by their superiors, they become distracted from their work. They redirect their efforts to trying to figure out what is going on and to coping with their fear and anxiety – perhaps searching the web for insight or huddling with their peers to gossip, complain, and exchange emotional support. As a result, performance suffers.

The importance of predictability in people’s lives is hard to overstate, and has been demonstrated in numerous studies. The most famous is Martin Seligman’s research on the signal/ safety hypothesis. Seligman observed that when a stressful event can be predicted, the absence of a stressful event can also be predicted. Thus a person knows when he or she need not maintain a state of vigilance or anxiety. Seligman cites the function of air-raid sirens during the bombing of London in World War II. They were so reliable a signal that people felt free to go about their business when the sirens were silent. The hypothesis was bolstered by studies in which some animals and not others were given a warning in advance of a shock. Those that were never warned lived in a constant state of anxiety. (p.45)

During overwhelming times, a good boss finds ways to keep up a drumbeat of accomplishments, however minor. The organizational theorist Karl Weick shows in his classic article “Small Wins” that when an obstacle is framed as too big, too complex, or too difficult, people are overwhelmed and freeze in their tracks. Yet when the same challenge is broken down into less daunting components, people proceed with confidence to overcome it. (p.48)

Compassion can and does take many forms. At its heart it is as simple as adopting the other person’s point of view, understanding his anxiety, and making a sincere effort to soothe it. (p.48) Compassion is most important when it helps people retain their dignity. (p.49)

Bosses who increase predictability, understanding, control, and compassion for their people will allow employees to accomplish the most in a time of anxiety – and will earn their deep loyalty. A manager who provides all four will be perceived as “having people’s backs.” That’s a good phrase to keep in mind when you know your people are feeling vulnerable, because it will inform all your actions, big and small. (p.49)

So are you a Good Boss and are you being responsible in terms of what your people may lack the most in unsettling times: predictability, understanding, control, and compassion.


Sutton, R. I. (2009). How to Be a GOOD BOSS in a Bad Economy. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 87 Issue 6, p.42-50.

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