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Mindfulness + Business

Performance and Humanity

by: Bob Sutton 

Arianna Huffington’s new book Thrive expands our definition of success. The virtues of Huffington’s approach are seen in research and cases on leadership, which demonstrate that bosses who take broader view of success can build teams that are more humane, more fun to work in, and perform better on conventional metrics over the long haul. This post shows how I have applied this approach in my book Good Boss, Bad Boss.

Even though the journey is never easy, great leaders know what goals to strive for and how the ride for followers, customers, and clients ought to feel along the way – and lousy leaders never seem to quite get it. A nasty law firm I once worked with demonstrates why a boss’s goals matter so much. The average partner in this firm made close to a million dollars a year, but the firm lost its soul in the process of bringing in all that wealth. Nearly every partner I spoke with was hostile and rude; I soon noticed they treated each other with similar disrespect. Many complained that it had become an oppressive and mean-spirited place. Several partners were especially upset because the firm’s chair (let’s call him Henry) had demeaned, exhausted, and driven-out many skilled and admired attorneys in his quest to pump-up billed hours and profits-per-partner. As one weary older partner told me, “We used to pride ourselves for having the best balance of humanity and economics in the business. Under Henry’s leadership, it is all economics all the time, humanity be damned.”

Bosses ought to be judged by what they and their people get done AND how their followers feel along the way. This is why Henry does not qualify as a great boss in my book. The best bosses balance performance and humanity, getting things done in ways that enhance rather than destroy dignity and pride. I am singing a tune much like psychologist Mark Van Vugt and his colleagues, who after examining research on tribes of hunter-gatherers and modern groups, concluded that effective leaders are “both competent and benevolent.” In my opinion, bosses who drive their people to make piles of money and crank out lots of work– but crush the human spirit along the way – are bad bosses.

How do you know if you are a good boss? For starters, don’t trust your own assessment. Bosses, like other humans, are notoriously poor judges of their own actions and accomplishments. My conversations with Henry suggested that he was oblivious to the lack of humanity in his firm and his abrasive style – even though his nastiness was widely known by firm insiders and industry outsiders. If you are boss, uncover the truth about how others see you. It turns out that followers, peers, superiors, and customers consistently provide far better information about a boss’s strengths, weaknesses, and quirks than the boss him or herself. Most people suffer from “self-enhancement bias” and believe they are “better than the rest” – and have a hard time accepting or remembering contrary facts. One study showed, for example, that 90% of drivers believe they had “above average” driving skills. More to the point, the College Board’s survey of nearly one million U.S. high schools seniors found that 70% reported they had “above average” leaders skills; only 2 % reported having “below average” skills.

The upshot is that great bosses work relentlessly toward two general kinds of goals -- but whether or not they persistently achieve them is best judged by others:

1. Performance. Does the boss do everything possible to help people do great work? To borrow a theme from J. Richard Hackman’s lifetime of research on team performance, great bosses and their followers produce work that consistently meets or exceeds the expectations of those who use and evaluate it. Regardless of local jargon and metrics, as Robert Townsend insisted in Up the Organization, a boss’s job is “to eliminate people’s excuses for failure.”

2. Humanity. Does the boss do everything possible to help people experience dignity and pride? A boss’s humanity is usually best judged by insiders, especially followers. After scouring through over 100 ethnographies of employees’ work lives, Randy Hodson concluded that working with dignity means “taking actions that are worthy of respect by oneself and others.” Dignity enables people to travel through their days feeling upbeat and respected.

There are times when a boss can spark both performance and humanity. In 2008, I spoke at a workshop for the Vermont Oxford Network, which links together hospitals to reduce medical errors and deaths in neonatal intensive care units (NICU). There were several hundred NICU doctors, nurses, administrators, and parents in the room. Another speaker provided a stirring example of how the best doctors treat their colleagues (especially nurses) with greater humanity and, in doing so, provide better care to babies. Dr. Michael Giuliano showed that when physicians ask nurses questions like “do you agree with my diagnosis” or “please tell me anything you see that contradicts my diagnosis,” nurses were treated with respect AND doing so led to more accurate diagnoses.

Unfortunately, such simultaneous two-for-one victories aren’t always possible. Yet bosses can still sustain high levels of both performance and humanity if they remember that “time was invented so that you don’t have to do everything at once.” This notion is conveyed simply byDavid Kelley, Chairman and founder of IDEO, one of the most renowned innovation firms in the world. When David talks about it, he draws the above “love” and “money” sketch, which he was kind enough to do for me for Good Boss, Bad Boss and allow me to use in this post.

David sees his job, or the job of any boss, as enabling people to experience dignity and joy as they travel through their work days (the love part, what I call humanity) AND to do work that keeps the lights on and provides them with fair pay, health care, and other necessities (the money part, what I call performance). David says that, although sometimes you can accomplish both at once, there are always stretches when people must do things they don’t love to bring in money. David explains that great bosses work to strike a balance between love and money over time, for example, by making sure that a designer who has worked on a dull, frustrating, and lucrative project gets to choose an inspiring if less profitable project the next time.

Managers at IDEO don’t accomplish this balancing act just through bigger moves like project assignments. They do it in little ways too: When designers have been working like dogs and are tired, grumpy, and starting to bicker, managers find little ways to slow things down, have some fun, and promote civility and mutual respect. This might happen by making sure that a designer who has been grinding away designing a medical device can get a refreshing break by going to a brainstorming session, for example, on how to improve the airport security experience, get doctors to wash their hands, or design new playing pieces for the Monopoly board game. Managers at IDEOs also provide breaks by shooting darts from Nerf guns or launching rubber darts called Finger Blasters at their people – which often degenerate into a full-scale 15 minute battles. Such adolescent antics won’t work in every workplace. But when the performance pressure starts heating-up and things are on the verge of turning ugly, skilled bosses everywhere find ways to give people a break, or tell a joke, or just make a warm gesture to place more weight on the “humanity” side of the scale.

As David put it, “foam darts aren’t for everybody, but there is always some form of play in every culture that allows people to let off steam.”



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