Big Think Interview with Robert Sutton

Robert Sutton: My name's Robert Sutton. I'm a professor at Stanford University, and I'm the author of books including "Good Boss, Bad Boss" and "The 'No Asshole' Rule."

Question: How are the millennials different in the workforce?

Robert Sutton: So this question of whether or not there is generational differences, I think... at the broad brush level I think that all human groups, and the research shows, anthropological research going back to preindustrial times we actually want the same kind of leader, but the nuances are different depending on the generation.  What we want, it turns out is we want a boss who is competent and not selfish or benevolent. So in the book I describe this as a boss who is good at performance, getting performance out of people, training them, supporting them in doing their job well and supports dignity and respect. And so the idea of having competence and benevolence or competence and compassion you can see that all through research going way back.  Those are the people who tend to rise to the leadership positions in preindustrial tribes and those are the people who we also want as our leaders. So at the most abstract level that is who we want to lead us as human beings.

But at different times the question of what somebody who has got your back or is compassionate I think that gets reinterpreted, so one of the issues that the millennials have, which for example my parents didn’t have and even my generation to a lesser extent is that first of all they want to… both men and women want to be more involved in raising their kids if they have kids, so in that case having a job where you’re working 75 hours a week doesn’t work out too well for everyone. And another thing that has happened with the millennials that’s different than their parents or even to some extent my generation—and I definitely see this at Stanford with my students—is,, boy did I see it the last couple years, is in my family and other families you’d see that somebody would work for a large corporation for years and would be okay, but what has happened to their parents is, well they’ve learned—and they always say the man, it’s funny—they've learned not to trust the man, that the man is going to screw them in the end and in fact, that is the new employment contract, so it always sort of amazes me when I see executives from big corporations and they say, "I don’t know why they don’t trust me."  Well you’ve been... layoffs are at an all time high and in fact there is evidence it isn’t just the economic times that layoffs are becoming more an increasingly sort of frequent response to economic troubles.  They happen quicker and they happen deeper and then there is fewer organizations with pension plans. 

Essentially the employment contract has changed, so my perspective on the millennials is no wonder you act that way.  You’ve been taught that the man is going to screw you—or sometimes the woman if you’re working from somebody like Meg Whitman or something. Or Carly Florina who actually laid off lots of people. Meg didn’t layoff very many people. So in some ways the millennials are acting completely rational and therefore I guess the definition of a competent and compassionate boss changes.  It’s somebody who is skilled at giving you the skills and abilities and connections you need to continue throughout your career even after they fire you, so I do think that relationship has changed some, and I guess that the definition of a nice boss is nastier than it used to be.  You can be known as nice and still do pretty nasty things to people.  

Can leadership be taught?

Robert Sutton:  Well so the notion is and as a business book author I should probably make the argument you should buy my book and all your problems are solved, but anybody who tells you that by taking this class or reading my book you will magically become a good boss is lying to you.

But the analogy I use is a little bit like medicine, that what you want is a doctor who both has a lot of experience and a doctor who actually knows what the latest research is.  Because experience is sort of a dangerous teacher in some ways.  It’s good to have the craft knowledge, but you also need to sort of leaven that with the mistakes that many other people have made in more systematic evidence and so I think you sort of need the one-two punch of both of them and one thing that really does strike me is that some of the most effective and impressive bosses an managers to me are people who are hungry to get as much experience as possible, so I think that is true for the millennials or anybody else who takes a job—you want to have as much different sort of management experience as possible—and also hungry to sort of, if you will, consumer information from diverse sources.

So I guess the quote, the Eleanor Roosevelt quote I use in the book is that it’s good to learn from other people’s mistakes because you can’t live long enough to make all those mistakes yourself and although there is an argument for learning from your own mistakes, so to me it’s sort of a balance between the two and very much, especially over the years I’ve sort of developed this notion that management... it’s a craft and I think medicine is an appropriate comparison where you can practice the craft better if you know the best research, but if you haven’t done it there is no way to learn about it.  By the way, that is one thing I do like about startup—and teaching at Stanford a lot of the students go into startups—is when you go into a startup you’re thrown in sort of the belly of the beast and you get to do all this management stuff that in a big corporation you’d be protected from. And in fact, I think that some of the best employees of big corporations, I’m thinking of like Facebook, which is actually pretty big, and Google and stuff.  Some of the best managers they have are people who have sort of like grown that startup and they’ll chafe against the larger bureaucracy to some extent, but they sort of know what it takes to make things work. So I’m a big believer that sort of first job out of school that starting your own business.  Even if you fail, it will have all sorts of rewards the rest of your life in terms of being able to get stuff done because you actually get practice doing management-type stuff.

What can a manager learn from failure?

Robert Sutton: There is no way that people can learn without failing and if you can show me a situation I would love to see the situation where just magically you can parachute in and be instantly lucky and brilliant and you know I think of some of the heroes of our day from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg and stuff, and right now Zuckerberg is like well a bit of a darling and a bit of an enemy with... he is CEO of Facebook. But like they have made an enormous number of mistakes. And Facebook is a good example because some of us may remember a couple of years back they had this thing come out where automatically if you just went to a restaurant or anything you did would sort of like show up on your... or you bought something it would show up on your Facebook page and God knows, people were probably buying you know pornography or whatever.  It would just sort of like show up on their Facebook page unless they stopped it.  Well those sort of mistakes actually are part of the process of learning. Zuckerberg is an interesting example because although he is a controversial character he definitely has the guts to try stuff that might offend people, but also sort of push the envelope.

But the argument that I’ve made about failures in bosses, though, in some ways to oversimplify it, when I think about failure there is three general sorts of responses that emerge from both the management literature in practice.   The first one is what I call the forgive and forget approach and so just I’m going to see my teenage daughter after this.  She is now in college, but an example of the forgive and forget approach is so the first actually day she had her learner’s permit through a series of events I still don’t understand she ran my wife’s brand new Infinity, so it had 300 miles in it, into our house and did $2,000 worth of damage to the car and $500 worth of damage to the house. And her reaction was she wanted us to forgive her and to forget about it and the problem with forgive and forget is there is like no accountability and there is no learning.  The second approach is what I call the Silicon Valley standard.  This is remember, blame, stigmatize, ostracize and humiliate. And the problem with that is that when you sort of humiliate people or put them down when they fail then they’re afraid to admit mistakes and the whole world turns into a cover-your-ass sort of game, so no learning occurs. And the way that the most effective organizations and in fact, if you look at research on hospitals that learn from medical mistakes—this is sort of the mantra they sometimes use—it’s to forgive and remember. So you forgive to have some psychological safety and you remember so that you can learn from your own mistakes and other people’s mistakes. And the other reason your remember is that if people keep making the same mistakes over and over again then there is some accountability and it’s a sign you’ve kind of got to get rid of them or have them do something else.

But failure is a complicated thing and just as a final point about failure Tom Peters and on down, management theorists I guess including me have celebrated the virtues of failure, but one thing that I’m always very careful to say is I don’t like failure.  I think it sucks.  It’s a terrible thing.  I wish it wasn’t necessary, but I can’t figure out any other way for people to learn how to do most things, but to sort of screw up enough until the point where they get better at it.

What can you learn from a really bad boss?

Robert Sutton:
It’s been astounding, especially my last book before "Good Boss, Bad Boss" was "The 'No Asshole' Rule," so I have received literally thousands of asshole stories. And there is a certain genre, which I just love, which is that "I learned from my boss how not to act the rest of my life."  And I’m telling stories about medicine, but my favorite one, one of my favorite ones I got and this is in actually the new paperback edition is a surgeon wrote me—now he is an attending, so he is a senior... he is like the boss of the surgeon basically for his area, practice area—and he wrote me how when he was in medical school every Friday afternoon him and the other surgical residents they would get together and they had this book which apparently had gone back for many generations, which was the asshole of the week, the biggest asshole attending of the week and they would keep track of it. And apparently at least according to the email I got from this guy this book still exists and the doctors in this hospital, the residents are still doing this, but the key part about learning from a bad boss in this case is they all have vowed not to treat the people who work for them, the residents like dirt and they keep sort of track and monitor each other to make sure it didn’t happen, so I like that case because it appears to be a case of people who sort of learn how not to do stuff and I think that there is other cases of famous bosses who will sort of describe that they’ve sort of patterned their management style after how not to do things.

Recorded September 13, 2010

Interviewed by John Cookson

An interview with professor of management at Stanford University.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.