Do bosses have the illusion of control?

September 6, 2010

Stanford University management professor Bob Sutton has written extensively about the impact of bad bosses in the workplace.  I blogged about his book “The No Asshole Rule” and have been using his litmus test ‘Do people feel more or less energized after they talk to you?’ as guidance since I first heard him describe it.  Sutton has long claimed that the boss’ style has a disproportionate impact because employees mimic their behavior.

As such, I was somewhat surprised to read an excerpt  from his upcoming book “Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best . . . and Learn from the Worst” which claims that leaders get more credit, and more blame, for performance than they actually deserve.  Sutton cites James Meindl’s research on the romance of leadership that bosses get more than half of the credit or blame for organizational performance when, in fact, they rarely account for more than 15%. It’s not that bosses don’t matter but rather it’s extremely difficult to tease out the multitude of factors that truly drive performance.  When in doubt, blame the boss.

Sutton goes on to suggest that, even if bosses aren’t in control, they should spend time creating the illusion that they are.  His seven “tricks” for enhancing that perception:

  1. Talk more than others, but not the whole time.
    At least in Western countries, people who talk first and most are seen as leaders—the blabbermouth theory. But if you talk the whole time, people will find you a bully, a bore, or both.
  2. Interrupt occasionally—and don’t let others interrupt you too much.
    You can augment your power by winning “interruption wars” at key junctures in meetings.
  3. Cross your arms when you talk.
    When people make this gesture, they persist longer and generate more solutions while working on difficult tasks. By crossing your arms, you send yourself a message to crank up the grit and confidence—but crossing them too often and intensely can make you look inaccessible and unfriendly.
  4. Use positive self-talk.
    People who make encouraging statements to themselves enjoy higher self-esteem and performance. The most effective such talk focuses on encouraging yourself and applying specific strategies.
  5. Try a flash of anger occasionally.
    The strategic use of outbursts, snarling looks, and hand gestures such as pointing and jabbing generates an aura of competence in small doses with proper precautions. But spewing out constant venom undermines your authority and earns you a well-deserved reputation as a jerk.
  6. If you aren’t sure whether to sit or to stand, stand.
    This point is especially crucial for a new boss. Standing up signals that you are in charge and encourages others to accept your authority. Whether you sit or stand, place yourself at the head of the table.
  7. Surrender some power or status, but make sure everyone knows that you did so freely. One of the most effective ways to show that you are both powerful and benevolent is to take a status symbol for yourself and give it to others.

The excerpt spurs a number of troubling questions that I’m not sure how to answer.  Do I have less control as a leader than I think I do?  What is the real tie between my leadership and the team’s performance?  Is it really a good use of my time to create the illusion that I’m in control?

I’m a big fan of Professor Sutton but I’m not sure what I think about “Good Boss, Bad Boss”.  To be fair, I’m going to reserve final judgment until I get a chance to read the actual book. (I see it got released this week.)

Anyone have any insights?