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Punk Rock HR

Jun 25, 2018

Robert Sutton is a Professor of Management Science and Engineering and a Professor of Organizational Behavior (by courtesy) at Stanford University. He co-founded the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (which everyone calls “the”). He’s also a Ph. D., but he doesn’t like to be called Doctor, or even Robert. His latest book is called The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt, and that’s what he and Laurie talk about on today’s episode.

  • Bob and Laurie both think the management landscape is broken, and according to Bob, managers tend to make two major mistakes. First, they overestimate their own value. In practice, this means that the more they micromanage employees, the more highly they'll rate their employees’ performance, whether they actually perform better or not. Second, managers don't know when to back off. It’s true: when an authority figure is in the room, it has a stifling effect – and Bob reveals why leaving the room is often the better move.
  • What’s the solution? Bob argues that we do need some management, but we need as little as we can get away with. Think about it: nowhere in the animal kingdom or in human society does there exist a group without some sort of pecking order. Google tried to get rid of it in the early days, but that blew up in their faces. Bob shares another story about GitHub’s dysfunctional lack of management adhocracy which led to every business owner’s worst nightmares and a founder getting forced out.
  • So where do you land between ‘Lord of the Flies’ and militaristic management? Laurie and Bob talk about the difference between authority and authoritarian assholes, and between narcissists and guilt-prone leaders.
  • What do you do if you’ve just founded a company and are looking to build strong leadership without being a stifling leader? Bob believes that the best leaders have ‘strong opinions that are weakly held.’ They also bring in people who offset their own weaknesses. Finally, if you’re going to be a leader, you HAVE to be resilient.
  • Want some quick and dirty advice on how to deal with assholes when you’re stuck in your job and you can't get out? Bob’s got some tips for you. In fact, he’s the expert on how to deal with assholes; he even wrote the book on it. But the answer is probably going to shock you, and he shares a story of someone who worked at Apple for 25 years and how he avoided Steve Jobs’ wrath. You also don’t want to miss the technique another of Bob’s colleagues uses on assholes – he deals with this problem like a research scientist would!
  • On a more poignant note, Bob and Laurie discuss some of the greatest scandals in the past decades, from sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein – there is strength in numbers. When you have people around you standing up for the same reason you are, you can no longer be singled out as a crazy person.
  • Bob’s latest passion project is spearheaded by his podcast, Friction. What is organizational friction? Bob’s learned a lot about it – he and his co-host have tracked organizations as they scale, and how great ideas and excellence can spread, but the big obstacle is continuing to do the great things they’ve been doing all along. Friction, frustration, and fatigue – they bring everyone down. But in his research, Bob has also found good things about friction, such as when friction was a result of a problem that could be fixed.
  • Bob gives us a preview of an episode of his podcast that hasn’t come out yet, a husband and wife team who run a 7-person restaurant chain in the San Francisco area. From dealing with substance abuse to the rhythm of the typical workday, Bob details some of the areas of friction they deal with. How do they do it? Like it or not: the answer is hierarchy.
  • When is friction good or bad? Are there times when you should embrace the friction or you should change the system to eliminate it? Bob shares a wealth of insights on how to deal with friction in the workplace. One of these is ‘the cone of friction.’ It’s a person who, wherever they go, cause friction around them. He also draws in the legendary George Carlin’s saying: “Your stuff is shit; my shit is stuff.”
  • Some of the worst managers and leaders act like children and lick the cookie. Rebecca Hinds was a guest on Bob’s podcast, and he shares the DIY sabotage that creates bottlenecks and breakpoints within a company.
  • Shifting gears, you have probably noticed the trend of many companies to celebrate failure. Fail forward! Fail fast! But is this the best path? Certainly, we shouldn’t run from it, but if we’re going to fail, we should be failing in new and interesting ways. Bob and Laurie talk about what healthy failure looks like.

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Bob Sutton




Friction Podcast

Asshole Videos


Podcast Appearances

Bob’s Favorite Friction Podcast Episodes

Don’t Sugar Coat Your Culture with Patty McCord

Friction’s Antidote: Radical Candor with Kim Scott

DIY Sabotage: Lick the Cookie with Rebecca Hinds of Dropbox