So it seems I’ve done it again.

To be honest, though, I’m not trying to upset anyone. I’m really not.

Nevertheless, I get it. My repeated criticisms of best-selling management-advice books and the management establishment… The at-times contrarian tone of my blog… Even it’s name: “insubordination”… I can see why some people might assume my sole motivation here is simply to rage against the corporate machine.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let me explain.

 

If you feel I’ve misrepresented your work…

As many of you by now know, when I criticize a particular management book, I usually make an effort to reach out to the author for comment, correction, or rebuttal.

Typically I shoot them an email that reads something like this:

Dear_____:

As a professional courtesy, I am writing to let you know that I cited your book _______ in a recent blog post. If you feel that I have misquoted or misrepresented you or your work in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Regards, etc., etc.

Most of the time I don’t hear back. Occasionally, however, I do. And recently, I got a reply from Robert Sutton, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

And Professor Sutton does not appear to be pleased with what I had to say about his 2010 management book, Good Boss, Bad Boss.

In one post I pointed out that, contrary to what most people believe, he seems to suggest that “micromanaging” employees on occasion might actually be a good thing. (To read the full post, click here.) And in another, I highlighted a couple of passages from his text that contradict each other. (To read that post, click here).

All of which resulted in a rather terse email from Dr. Sutton. It begins as follows:

I think you don’t understand evidence-based management.. It is great to be cynical, but you are taking a post-fact perspective… if you want to see everything as shit, fine with me..

And concludes thusly:

I won’t engage with you ever again after this, and research shows that logic rarely sways people with strong opinions.. But your logic is terrible. I have my doctoral students write scathing reviews of my work sometimes.. I am constantly seeking people who are worthwhile to argue with as I am right and listen as if I am wrong; but your arguments are so weak it is stunning.. 

(And lest I be accused of taking Professor Sutton’s comments out of context, I’ve reprinted the full text of his email below – please see Endnote [1]).

So there’s a lot to respond to here. Let’s begin with:

  • “I think you don’t understand evidence-based management”

I’m not entirely sure where Dr. Sutton is going with this, but I’d just point out that neither of my posts called into question his research, nor any of the evidence presented. As I just stated, I simply found it notable that (1) his book seems to support micromanaging on occasion, in defiance of conventional management wisdom, and (2) the author of a book titled Good Boss, Bad Boss couldn’t seem to make his mind up about whether bosses actually matter or not.

As for “evidence-based management,” I would just add that I do understand the concept. And so far as I can tell, there’s considerable and compelling evidence to suggest that listening to your employees is about as close to a sure-fire recipe for success—and being a “good boss”—as you’re going to get. (For more on this, click here.)

  • “It is great to be cynical…”

Actually, I disagree. I don’t think it’s great to be cynical. But more on that in a minute.

  • “…but you are taking a post-fact perspective…”

“Post-fact”? Again, I’m not sure what Dr. Sutton is getting at here. But perhaps it’s related to one of my own frustrations with his text, and management advice books in general…

As I’ve already written about at length, for every management “principle” offered by one of these management advice books, one can almost always find a contradictory counterpart. This makes them very useful in rationalizing behaviors after the fact—or “post fact”?—but little else. For example, one might invoke the idiom “look before you leap,” or “he who hesitates is lost” depending on the which action you’d like to justify.

In my post that was so upsetting to Dr. Sutton, I had simply pointed that some of the advice in his own book is guilty of this flaw as well. For example, on the one hand he writes: “…talented employees who put their needs ahead of their colleagues and the company are dangerous” (p. 102). And yet later he offers a contradictory opinion when he insists: “…to be a great boss you’ve got to think and act as if it is all about you. Your success depends on being fixated on yourself” (p. 245).

(It is worth noting that the first person to identify this weakness in management theory was an organizational theorist named Herbert Simon. For more on this, click here.)

  • “if you want to see everything as shit, fine with me..”

Not true. I don’t see everything as s***, nor do I wish to. I do however believe that very little of substance has been written on the subject of managing, and how to do it well. [For more on this, click here.]

 

Now to be fair, Dr. Sutton’s email isn’t all insult and abuse. He makes a few points worthy of both acknowledgement and consideration.

For instance:

  • “…my book and everything I have written have made three things very clear…”

[This part of Prof. Sutton’s reply gets a bit wordy, so I’ve taken the liberty of summarizing/paraphrasing. But again, if you’re at all worried about my objectivity, the full text of his email can be found in Endnote #1.]

Point 1: People consistently overestimate the impact of “leadership” (that is, the single, inspiring leader)

Point 2: The bosses that matter most are immediate supervisors

Point 3: People quit bosses, not companies

These are all great points – and indeed, ones with which I wholeheartedly agree. So if taken together they comprise the primary thesis of Dr. Sutton’s text, as he insists, I will admit to not having picked up on that. You see, I was under the mistaken impression that Good Boss, Bad Boss was an advice book written for managers on how to manage better – an impression I got from the book’s subtitle:

How to be the best…and learn from the worst.”

  • “I believe what you are mistaking for inconsistency is a reflection of nuance, of what researchers call boundary conditions (some theories hold in some conditions and not others)…” 

I’m glad Professor Sutton brought this up, because I’ve actually heard this argument before.

Dr. Sutton claims says that “some theories hold in some conditions not others,” or are dependent on “boundary conditions.” In my own experience, however, these “conditions” are never then specified in sufficient detail – or at least not in any text on management or organizational theory that I have ever read (including Dr. Sutton’s). Instead, any and all ambiguities are simply chalked up to “nuance,” or seen as proof that good management is an “art” more than it is a science.

This, to my mind, is a cop-out.

(Note that Sutton’s argument here is essentially the backbone of contingency theory – a theory of managing which states that there are no universal management principles that might be applied in any and all circumstances. Instead, concepts are considered to be situationally-dependent – that is, appropriate only under specific circumstances or in certain situations. For my more detailed critique of contingency theory, please click here.)

  • “And as a sign you are just reading for inconsistency…”

Yes – guilty as charged. For the reasons I just gave, I read Professor Sutton’s book looking specifically for inconsistencies.

  • “I am sure I say things that wrong or inaccurate, as many of us do…”

Agreed – I too make mistakes all the time. For instance, it seems that I offended you in some way, Dr. Sutton, even though that was not my intent. I apologize.

  • “…but I think your point that opposite argument can be made about anything, so it is all crap, is destructive and leads to cynicism and bad decisions.”

Alright – so allow me to address Dr. Sutton’s charge that I am “cynical,” and prefer to see everything as “crap.”

 

Constructive advice

As I’ve already conceded, I can see why someone like Dr. Sutton might assume that I’m simply throwing stones at glass houses. As my blog reads so far, I understand how one might get that impression.

So a little context is probably appropriate.

Let me start by pointing out that I am a scientist by training (a chemist, actually). And as such, I was taught to approach problem-solving in a very specific way.

Step one of that process involves identifying the weaknesses in the current state-of-the-art in whatever field you may be investigating, or hoping to improve upon. If you are attempting to build a better mousetrap, for example, you might investigate and then call attention to some of the deficiencies in those mousetraps already on the market. And if you’re attempting to come up with a better theory of management, a good place to start is to identify the weaknesses in current management theory.

This is fundamentally important for two reasons: (1) There is perhaps no better way to fully understand whatever problem you hope to tackle; and (2) it enables one to demonstrate to others (and yourself) that there is a need for something better.

This, to be clear, has so far been the aim of my blog.

By pointing out the deficiencies, inadequacies, and flaws in current management theory (of which there are many), I am simply attempting to justify the need for some new approach—or theory—of managing, as well as better define the weaknesses that would need to be addressed.

So, no – I don’t see my critiques of Professor Sutton’s book, or Roger Martin’s book, or any of the other management advice books that I have examined as “destructive,” as Sutton charges. I’d argue just the opposite: The exercise is in fact just the first step in something fundamentally constructive. Although it might not seem it—nor always be pleasant—I am simply attempting to contribute to improvement of management theory in the only way I know how.

And if I have caused offense in the process, I apologize.

In the meantime, I remain optimistic. It is my sincere belief that Dr. Sutton’s strong opinions will not prevent him from engaging in logical debate with individuals such as myself in the future, even though we would appear to disagree.

And even though, as he rightly points out:

“Research shows that logic rarely sways people with strong opinions..”

 

See you next Friday.

 

Endnote

[1] Hmm

I think you don’t understand evidence-based management.. It is great to be cynical, but you are taking a post-fact perspective… if you want to see everything as shit, fine with me.. But the path of the evidence (I spent 25 years writing peer reviewed papers and follow the evidence religously) , and if you spend a lot of time with splendid leaders as I have had the privilege to do such as Ed Catmull, senior execs who played key roles google and facebook and so on, I believe what you are mistaking for inconsistency is a reflection of nuance, of what researchers call boundary conditions (some theories hold in some conditions and not others), and of the fact that initial findings that seem to be right are eventually proven wrong or at least suspect by new and stronger evidence.   So while throwing mud might be fun, I think you are missing the point.. My point about assertiveness, whether you agree with it or not, is based a set of studies in rigorous peer reviewed journal.. I think your argument that both sides of an argument can be made is silly and shows the problem with our post-fact world.. Yes there are a few crummy scientists who argue global warming is not caused by human activity, but the weight of evidence suggests otherwise.. The stuff I draw on is not that strong, but that is where I start.   I am sure I say things that wrong or inaccurate, as many of us do, but I think your point that opposite argument can be made about anything, so it is all crap, is destructive and leads to cynicism and bad decisions. 

And as a sign you are just reading for inconsistency, my book and everything I have written have made three things very clear (this is evidence-based), you just didn’t process the nuance:

  1.  People consistently overestimate the impact of leadership on team and organizational performance (this is called the romance of leadership.. It is very well-documented, and the larger and older the organization, the less a single leader matters).
  2. The bosses that matter most for performance are, essentially, team leaders.. immediate supervisors, whether it be the CEO and senior team, an agile team, or a combat team.. So bosses matter, just not as much as most people think.
  3. And people do tend to quit bosses, by which as I make very clear, the next person above them in the hierarchy..so they don’t quite google or GM so much as they quit their immediate boss at google or GM.. 

Note the nuance.. I wont engage with you ever again after this, and research shows that logic rarely sways people with strong opinions.. But your logic is terrible. I have my doctoral students write scathing reviews of my work sometimes.. I am constantly seeking people who are worthwhile to argue with as I am right and listen as if I am wrong; but your arguments are so weak it is stunning.. 

Professor Robert I. Sutton
Department of Management Science & Engineering
Stanford University