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Why good bosses tune in to their people


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Why good bosses tune in to their people

Know how to project power, counsels Stanford management professor Bob Sutton, since those you lead need to believe you have it for it to be effective. And to lock in your team’s loyalty, boldly defend their backs.

Bosses matter. They matter because more than 95 percent of all people in the workforce have bosses, are bosses, or both. They matter because they set the tone for their followers and organizations. And they matter because many studies show that for more than 75 percent of employees, dealing with their immediate boss is the most stressful part of the job. Lousy bosses can kill you—literally. A 2009 Swedish study tracking 3,122 men for ten years found that those with bad bosses suffered 20 to 40 percent more heart attacks than those with good bosses.

Bosses matter to everyone they oversee, but they matter most to those just beneath them in the pecking order: the people they guide at close range, who constantly tangle with the boss’s virtues, foibles, and quirks. Whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or the head chef at a restaurant, your success depends on staying in tune with the people you interact with most frequently and intensely.

All bosses matter, but those at the top matter most. Whether or not they know it, their followers monitor, magnify, and often mimic their moves. I worked with a large company where the CEO did almost all of the talking in meetings, interrupted everyone, and silenced dissenting underlings. His executive vice presidents complained about him behind his back, but when he left the room, the most powerful EVP started acting the very same way. When that EVP left, the next-highest-ranking boss began imitating him in turn.

The ripple effects of this CEO’s style are consistent with findings from peer-reviewed studies showing that senior executives’ actions can reverberate throughout organizations, ultimately undermining or bolstering their cultures and performance levels. When CEOs have far more pay and power than their direct reports do, for instance, performance can suffer if their subordinates feel they can’t stop them from making and implementing lousy decisions. A few years ago, I did a workshop with a management team struggling with “group dynamics” problems. Team members felt that their boss, a senior vice president, listened poorly and “ran over” others; he called his people “thin-skinned wimps.” I asked the team—the senior vice president and five direct reports—to do an exercise. The six of them spent 20 minutes brainstorming potential products and then narrowed their choices to the most feasible, the wildest, and the most likely to fail.

As they brainstormed, I counted the number of comments made by each team member and the number of times each interrupted someone else and was interrupted in turn. The senior vice president contributed about 65 percent of the comments, interrupted others at least 20 times, and was never interrupted. When I had him leave the room, I asked his subordinates to estimate the results, and they did so accurately. Then the senior vice president returned. He recalled making about 25 percent of the comments, interrupting others perhaps 3 times, and being interrupted 3 or 4 times. When I showed him the results and explained that his direct reports had estimated them far more accurately, he was flabbergasted and annoyed.

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