In a recent blog post at Harvard Business Review’s The Conversation, best selling business author Bob Sutton generated a lot of discussion with a post entitled Some Bosses Live in a Fool’s Paradise. Bob’s basic premise is that leaders become more susceptible to a distorted sense of reality the higher they climb in an organization. Why? Three reasons according to Sutton.
1. Bosses are, like everyone, self-deluding. All human beings tend to be poor judges of their own actions and accomplishments. Sutton points out that we all suffer from “self-enhancement bias,” where we believe that we are “better than the rest.” In one study he cites, for example, 90% of drivers reported that they had “above average” driving skills. In a US College Board survey of nearly a million high school seniors, 70% claimed “above average” leadership skills; only 2 % believed they were “below average.”
2. Bosses are naturally heedless of subordinates. When someone is put in a position of power, subordinate members of the group watch that individual very closely but the attention is not reciprocated. As Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske discovered in her workplace research (reported in American Psychologist), “Secretaries know more about their bosses than vice versa; graduate students know more about their advisors than vice versa.” Sutton calls this combination of overattentive subordinates and inattentive bosses “the toxic tandem.”
3. Bosses are insulated from reality. Drawing on research from his book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense, (co-written with Jeff Pfeffer ) Sutton identifies that leaders in organizations routinely “shoot the messenger.” As Sutton explains, “Bearers of bad news, even when they aren’t responsible for it in any sense, tend to be blamed and to have negative feelings directed toward them. The result is the “Mum Effect”: subordinates with good survival instincts soften bad news to make it sound better, or avoid passing it along to their bosses at all.”
Sutton concludes that even when you consider just these three tendencies, you begin to appreciate how easy it is to be a terrible boss. At the same time, you get a glimpse at one of the keys to leading well—a clear sense of who you are and the impact your position has on the people around you.