In a recent issue of the McKinsey Quarterly, Stanford Professor Bob Sutton published an article that provides some advice to bosses at the top of organisations. Much of this advice is also relevant to CIOs and other IT leaders. Below is an edited extract from the article. Are you a good boss? Do you practice the things bob suggests?

Bosses Matter

Almost 95% of people who work have bosses or are bosses. The bosses set the tone, the rules and guide at close range. Bosses are important because for more than 75% of people employees, dealing with their direct boss is the most stressful part of their job. Those just below the boss in the pecking order constantly have to deal with the boss’ virtues, quirks and habits. A Swedish study indicated that men with bad bosses suffered 20-40% more heart attacks than those with good bosses.

Bosses matter but those that are higher up in the organisation matter the most. Whether they realise it or not, bosses cast long shadows. Their moves are observed constantly by their followers, who in turn will regularly magnify and mimic their moves. Often the subordinates know more about the boss and his/her habits than the boss him/herself. If the boss has an autocratic management style the subordinates tend to become autocratic. If the boss interrupts people when they are talking, the subordinates tend also to pick up this trait. The Executive’s actions (rather than words) reverberate through the rest of the organisation and can change or undermine the organisation’s culture. I have seen that within a year of the arrival of a new CEO, the culture of the organisation can change dramatically.

The best bosses stay in tune with the relentless attention given to them and are aware of power of the long shadow they cast. They use it to their advantage in setting the direction and showing that they are in charge. These bosses understand how others see them and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Effective bosses know how to take control and how to boost the performance of their organisation. The bosses who don’t know this find their tenures shortened.

Take Control

The first and most important thing that new bosses should do is convince others that they are in charge. Those who fail at this first hurdle will find their jobs impossible. In today’s organisations, leaders often get more credit (and blame) for the organisations successes than they deserve. The reality is that bosses only influence 15% of performance but receive 50% or more credit for it. This is reflected in the large salaries some Chief Executives receive. However, perception is reality. The bosses who admit they don’t have much influence on performance outcomes would lose the confidence of the team that they lead.

Bob lists four ideas to improve the perception of control:

1.  Express confidence even if you don’t feel it

In 2002, when Intel’s CEO Andy Grove was asked how leaders can act confident even when they have doubts he said, “Investments and decisions don’t wait for the picture to be clarified. You have to make then when you have to make them”. When leaders pump themselves and act confident, they start feeling confident. A leader’s confidence inspires their followers.

2. Don’t dither

Indecision, delay and waffling are hallmarks of a weak boss. If the boss makes quick decisions it creates the illusion that they are in charge. Others don’t mind if the boss changes his mind some time later as new information emerges. People don’t like the boss procrastinating before making each decision.

3. Get and give credit

As mentioned before, bosses tend to receive more credit when their people do good work. Smart bosses know this and can leverage this to their advantage. These bosses know people like to work for the winners so when mentioning accomplishments they give copious credit to others. The best bosses routinely give more credit to their team than they probably deserve because when they do this everyone wins. The boss gets the reflected credit and the team thinks the boss is truthful. Outsiders think that the boss is competent but also modest and generous.

4. Blame yourself

Just as bosses get most of the credit when things go right they get the lion’s share of the blame when things go wrong. When something bad happens, the boss is expected to know. Leaders who denounce others for their troubles come across as less than honest and powerless. By refusing to take responsibility they raise the question, “are you really in control?” Managers who accept the blame and responsibility are seen to be more powerful and competent than those who avoid the blame.

However, the key is not just to accept the blame and say sorry. Instead the boss should take immediate control of the situation, show that they have learned from their mistakes and announce new plans. When these plans are implemented the boss should make sure everyone understands that the improved results are due to the new plans.

Bolstering performance

Bosses can bully and force people into short term performance gains. But in the long term these are counter-productive and undermine worker creativity and morale. Bob suggests three strategies that the best bosses use to focus on boosting the performance of their people:

1. Provide safety

Good bosses encourage learning by creating a safety zone where people can talk about half-baked ideas without the fear of ridicule or punishment. Many organisations have a strong fear of failure. Creating psychological safety is the key to unleashing new ideas and creativity in the workplace. The absence of psychological safety in conjunction with fear of the boss can lead to negative consequences. When people fear reprisals, errors tend to be hidden and not admitted. Feedback and improvements stop which in many cases can result in more significant problems down the track.

2. Shield people

The best bosses shield their people from criticism or premature judgement from others that can undermine their work. Teams who enjoy such protection have the freedom to take risks and try new things. Good bosses provide their people with the resources and experts to do the work and air cover to get on with the job without unnecessary distractions and criticisms.

Good bosses are especially adept at protecting their people’s time, for example by eliminating unnecessary meetings or keeping them short. They also try to eliminate needless reviews and activities often initiated by outsiders so that the team can focus on the job at hand.

3. Make small gestures

The late Robert Townsend, CEO of Avis and author of the masterpiece Up the organisation, referred to the phrase “thank you” as a, “really neglected form of compensation”. It is a sad reality that too many projects end without acknowledgement and celebration. The best managers take the time to express their appreciation to their people even when the project has gone bad. When the stench of failure is in the air people need more support from the boss and from one another. Bosses with will and skill provide this support and allow their people to learn from the failure. However, more bosses unfortunately engage in the blame game than provide support.


Good bosses not only get more from their people, they also attract and keep better people. If you think the people who work for you are deadbeats or jerks, look in the mirror. Why don’t the best people want to work for you?

Of all the skills good bosses have, self-awareness is probably the most important. The best performers accurately judge both their strengths and their flaws. They make an effort to understand how their moods and quirks affect the performance of their team.

The best bosses will constantly ask themselves, “what does it feels to be working for me?”. If your people answered this question honestly, what would they say?

Tagged with →