Do bosses have the illusion of control?

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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?

14 Responses to Do bosses have the illusion of control?

  1. Jonathan September 7, 2010 at 8:51 am #

    It’s interesting to see that the first two comments share my concern with these recommendations. And yet, my experience with Prof Sutton is that he’s quite insightful.

  2. nmarks September 7, 2010 at 8:08 am #

    Jonathan, these tricks sound like characteristics of a bossy boss, whom people fear but don’t respect.

    Few would follow this leader.

  3. muthu ranganathan September 7, 2010 at 8:37 am #

    The above looks very US centric.
    May not work so much in rest of world.

  4. Robert E September 7, 2010 at 9:10 am #

    I agree with nmarks that this seems to describe a micromanaging boss.

    As far as control goes, could it be that Bob Sutton is measuring the wrong things, because those things he is measuring are easy and what is already collected? That sort of “alpha-male” behavior wouldn’t seem to address motivational issues. To me it seems like an output, not an outcome.

  5. Jonathan September 7, 2010 at 11:10 am #

    The jury continues to indict Sutton’s conclusions. I’ve posted the excerpt (which I forgot originally) to see if anyone changes their mind.

  6. michael September 7, 2010 at 11:01 am #

    The recommendation to spend time worrrying about creating the illusion of control feels misguided. While it is good to be self-aware (in both work and life) of the impact your actions have on others, i think the behaviors Sutton notes have far less impact than others that demonstrate actual leadership: setting and articulating direction, getting others to buy in to that direction, and demonstrating the wherewithal to achieve desired outcomes. Observable results matter more than how one chooses to stand in a meeting. This doesn’t mean one should ignore Sutton’s recommendation, but instead recognize that they are likely window dressing compared to the leadership behaviors that matter most.

  7. Sally September 7, 2010 at 11:53 am #

    The described boss sounds like a person that generates mockery, one for whom the ‘workers’ would just agree and then go do whatever it is they planned to do without the boss’ input. If any boss conscientously did those things they likely are not worth the effort, US or not. Interrupting and crossing your arms is just rude behavior regardless of being ‘in control’.

  8. nmarks September 7, 2010 at 11:59 am #

    Jonathan, are you sure these aren’t caricatures? Traits that decieve you into believing you are effective, when they are in fact the opposite?

    I just read the following, on “Mindful Leadership: When East Meets West”, which I believe has more value.

  9. Faheem September 7, 2010 at 7:48 pm #

    Hmmmm… Really? Those “tricks” sound like something lifted out of Dilbert!

  10. Mark Y September 8, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

    Sounds too manipulative for my taste. Maybe this would work short-term, let’s say for a negotiation or one-time transaction, but I’d be far more interested in the “authentic” real boss over time, not his or her orchestrated facade. And I would rather be an authentic manager/leader than what this portrays. Not a fan of this advice …

  11. Arnaud September 10, 2010 at 12:43 am #

    Being a fan of Prof Sutton, I am also surprised that he seems to recommend these ‘tricks’. If this is truly the case, I think he’s really missed the point – if it is true that leaders do not influence outcomes as much as is popularly imagined, then what is to be gained by creating an ‘illusion of control?’ This illusion would appear to serve no larger purpose than to feed the leaders ego. Wouldn’t a more effective strategy be for a leader to surrender himself to this reality and focus instead on building a first class team and empowering them to deliver on the 85%?

  12. Sarah Goodall September 13, 2010 at 7:44 am #

    Perhaps Professor Sutton is using reverse psychology to communicate his point (like the book “How to be a Complete and Utter Failure in Life, Work and Everything”). In this ‘social’ day and age it’s less about managing perception and more about delivering great leadership…no place to hide!

  13. Carmen September 19, 2010 at 6:54 pm #

    These tricks make him sound dangerously close to being the asshole he purports to reject!

    The only saving grace for me would be if the research shows that, for whatever reason, once someone is perceived as being more in control, they also become more effective and get more results.

    I’d still like to believe you can do this with your team without towering over them all the time (literally & figuratively)!


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