Lessons from toxic bosses

The best bosses succeed because they keep chipping away at a huge pile of dull, interesting, fun, rewarding, trivial, frustrating and often ridiculous chores, according to Robert Sutton in his book Good Boss Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst. The book sets out to contrast the best and worst actions that bosses perform in the workplace when doing tasks like taking charge, making decisions, turning talk into action, and doing their own dirty work.

In chapter 1, the author says that the mindset of the best bosses has five key ingredients: the right amount of assertiveness, grit, a focus on small wins, awareness of how others perceive them, and a willingness to stand up for their people. Subsequent chapters describe what the best bosses do: take control, strive to be wise, weed out the rotten apples, link talk and action, serve as a human shield, don’t shirk the dirty work, and suppress their inner jerk.

Most people who have been in the workforce for a while will have had a chance to see a suboptimal boss-employee situation, and accordingly the subject matter of the book is likely to be highly relevant to many people. There is a certain voyeuristic pleasure in reading toxic boss stories and recognising the circumstances of some of them, although as the author points out, bad bosses will rarely recognise themselves as perpetrators.

Most chapters include a useful set of tips for self-improvement, and the last chapter contains the advice that to be a great boss you have to think and act as if it is all about you. The author goes on to explain that he is not talking about selfishness and dangerous delusions, but about focusing on controlling personal moods and moves and accurately interpreting their impact on others. I was somewhat uncomfortable about this, because while I agree that self-awareness is an important aspect of good leadership, all of the good leaders I have known have been more focused on helping others achieve the organisational mission than on analysing themselves. In my view the book contains a lot of wisdom, but I cannot help suspecting that some of the secrets to being a good boss have eluded the author.

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