Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Excellent Guide for Management - Self and Other

Right after Labor Day, Robert Sutton - Stanford Business School professor and author of The No A**hole Rule (slightly NSFW - guess why?) - is coming out with Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Learn from the Worst (SFW; book itself rated PG). Professor Sutton was kind enough to send me a free advance copy.

Professor Sutton is also the father of an Aspie, and while AS is not the focus of either of his books, he has created something that all Aspies - at least those who hope to get and keep steady jobs, maybe even management jobs - should hearken to. (And there's plenty here for NTs too.)

First off, there's lots of practical, specific advice, from nitty-gritty tips like "Cross your arms when you talk" and "Try a little flash of anger now and then" (complete with a strong warning not to go overboard with these things) to principles protecting your workers from outsiders' troublesome demands (not a redundancy) to how to deliver an effective apology.

That last forms part of one of the most important elements of Sutton's whole work: A good boss must enable - even welcome and encourage - professional challenges from subordinates. We're not talking one-upmanship, but rather making sure that subordinates who are right are willing and able to inform bosses - and colleagues - who may be mistaken.

That means subordinates - and other stakeholders such as stockholders, customers and the general public - need to understand that the boss not only can be wrong (that's obvious enough) but also knows and accepts that s/he can be wrong. And in turn, that while the boss knows s/he can be wrong, s/he does not know just when that will be or how it can be and thus needs appropriate warnings to head off mistakes, if not disaster.

Effective apologies help reinforce that idea. So does following Sutton's advice - for which he elsewhere credits Karl Weick - to fight as though you are right...and listen as though you are wrong.

Also, Sutton shows us not only why we should not shirk the dirty work, including disciplining and firing people when necessary, but also how to do it well, especially with maximum consideration for those who are hurt.

We Aspies know very well that many people, including colleagues and even bosses, can be mistaken and need correcting. We pride ourselves on, among other things, our honesty, creative approaches to problems, love for truth and understanding of the facts without fear or favor. If and when we become bosses - which IMHO can be understood to include parents - we need to walk the walk, and encourage subordinates to correct both us and one another safely.

In turn, Sutton shows us that it's not just a matter of saying "OK, speak your minds!" He reminds us that our subordinates, like everyone else, are creatures of emotion and ego as well as logic and facts. Therefore, he shows us in detail how to both make subordinates comfortable about correcting the boss, and also manage creative conflicts among subordinates.

Among other things, we must never forget that most people have suffered bosses and colleagues who shot the proverbial messenger, so we need to inspire trust and loyalty. For example, we must not be so intent on correcting anyone we think is wrong that we smother those very impulses in people who depend on our approval.

Even for those of us who are not bosses, this is an excellent self-management guide. No one needs to be a boss to be able to apologize, link talk and action, or encourage others to approach us with bad news. To the contrary, these skills will help us become better workers, better (and happier) people...and stronger candidates for promotion.

We pride ourselves on our acid minds and talk, which cuts through surface alloys to reveal the core. Acid is a vital component of many industrial processes. Another vital component of those processes is protective measures like goggles, emergency hoses and showers for washing people who have gotten hit, regular inspection and maintenance of machinery and strict work rules. Without these things we could not safely handle acid, and thus would generally do without it.

In a nutshell, Sutton's work both channels our greatest gifts and challenges us to develop our more dormant competencies, particularly in human relations, without which our gifts will never - and arguably should never - see the light of day.

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