Leadership: Stamp Out Assholes Now!

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If you’ve ever had a really bad boss, you know what it’s like.

When I worked for my version of the Worst Boss Ever, it affected just about everything. We spent a lot of time playing defense and trying to stay out of our boss’s way. After one of his grandiose lectures, or abusive tantrums, it took us a long time to recover and get back to work. Instead of spending our time at work thinking about how to do things better and enjoying the people we worked with, we spent time talking about our boss and hoping he wouldn’t show up.

Not only that, my Worst Boss Ever affected a lot more than work. I had an awful lot of bad days at work back then. And a lot of the time, I took those bad days, or at least parts of them, home. It wasn’t good for my family or my psychological wellbeing.

Help for People with Awful Bosses

My Worst Boss Ever was the kind of boss Bob Sutton calls an asshole. After he wrote The No Asshole Rule a decade ago, he got so much mail that he’s written another book. This one is The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt. I sure wish I’d had that book back in the day.

It’s great to have something that can help us deal with awful bosses. But that’s only part of the problem. We need to do something in our companies about stopping the flow of assholes into positions of power.

Yes, I know, assholes are like bamboo or kudzu. Once you’ve got them, it’s almost impossible to get rid of them. But, surely if we can defeat polio, we can make some progress on this front.

Picking the Right People to Be Bosses

The people who make the best bosses are those who find joy in helping others succeed. For them, the team’s success and recognition is more important than their own personal recognition. Andy Grove said they were people with “the right kind of ambition.”

Aptitude tests can help with this, but the most important thing you can do to see if people will be good at leadership and enjoy the work is to put them in temporary leadership assignments. Those abound in most corporations. There are task force and project leadership assignments you can spread around for everyone who thinks they might want to aspire to leadership.

You get two benefits from that. First, obviously, you can look at the performance of a person in temporary roles and figure out if they have that desire to help the team and the team members succeed. You can also figure out if they’re willing to make decisions and if they’re willing to confront others about bad performance or behavior.

The other side of the coin is that the person in the temporary assignment learns if he or she really wants to become a leader. That’s crucial, because leadership is one of those jobs that looks really, really easy until you try to do it.

Offer the opportunity for these temporary assignments to anyone who says they want them. Have people with good coaching skills help the aspiring leader debrief after an assignment.

The Crucial Transition

I think that the transition from being an individual contributor to being responsible for the performance of the group is the single toughest transition in business. Most of the people who move into supervisory positions figure that they’ll have things under control quickly. Usually, they’re wrong.

According to my research and experience, it takes a year and a half to two years for a new supervisor to get the basics of the job under control. One reason for that is that most corporations have an annual cycle and a new leader needs to be through at least one full cycle to understand what’s expected of him or her.

Consider assigning another supervisor, one who’s not a peer of the new supervisor, to be a “field training boss” during the transition period. Make sure that your field training bosses are competent and comfortable coaches.

There’s one more thing. Make it possible for people to resume their individual contributor work if they find that being a boss is just not for them.

Evaluation on The Whole Job

One corporate practice that can turn decent bosses into assholes is being measured only on results. If your company does that, you are sowing the seeds of awful leadership.

Instead, evaluate everyone responsible for the performance of a group on two dimensions. Number one, team performance. Number two, the value of helping team members succeed, along with any other corporate values.

The only way to get at this is if you have an evaluation that comes from different directions. Make sure that team members are part of the evaluation process as well as a boss’s peers.

If you’ve got an awful boss, there’s no time to lose. Get a copy of Bob Sutton’s The Asshole Survival Guide. If you’re in a position where you can do something about the quality of bosses in your company, get to it. There’s no time to lose for you, either. Help stamp out assholes now!

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