Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Wise Boss: More Evidence For Expressing Confidence, But Harboring Private Doubts

One of the challenges that I write about in Good Boss, Bad Boss and that Jeff Pfeffer and I discuss in Hard Facts is that leaders walk a fine line between exuding confidence while simultaneously making decisions and updating their actions based on the best possible information. The best bosses, we argue, have what psychologists call the attitude of wisdom: They act with confidence, while doubting what they know. I have written about this here before, and perhaps the best example is in this long post about the wisdom of former Intel CEO Andy Grove. There is a long quote from Andy in this post, and he demonstrates that attitude of wisdom with this great line, advising bosses:

Act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction, and when your realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly.

But perhaps Grove's most intriguing argument is that when you've made a decision you are not quite sure about, you as a boss are still smart to act confident, "to keep up your own spirits even though you well understand that you don't know what you are doing."

I talk about this balancing act a lot in Good Boss, Bad Boss and in the workshops I do with managers and executives and they usually immediately get it and tell me that this is their lot in life. But I have received push back over the years from some readers and some managers too who argue I am telling bosses to be less transparent. I agree with the sentiment, and their arguments make me squirm, but have argued back that, if you as a boss talk about uncertainty too much, the problem is it undermines both your legitimacy as well as the self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, since you will be seen as less competent if you come across as wishy-washy, to keep your job and sustain your follower's faith, you need to act confident, probably more confident than you really feel.

On a related point, the lovely new book, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, The Invisible Gorilla (you really should read it, it is scary and wonderful), describes a study done of two hypothetical weather forecasters, Anna and Betty. Anna predicted a 90% chance of rain for 4 days in a row. Betty predicted a 75% chance of rain 4 days in a row. The experimental subjects were told that it ended-up raining three of the four days, so Betty was an objectively perfect forecaster -- her probabilistic estimates were exactly on target . Yet still, nearly half of the subjects said that Anna was a better forecaster, because she was more confident in her predictions (even though Better was more accurate). Chabris and Simons also report related research on confidence; for example, doctors who consult articles and books before making a decision are seen as less competent than those who do not, which the authors take as another sign that we human-beings tend to reward and believe people who act confident, independently of whether that confidence is justified or not.

When I take all this into account, the best advice I can give bosses is to develop wisdom, to express confidence in their decisions (to sustain legitimacy and inspire people to action) and yet to keep doubting what they know and are doing in private and in backstage discussions with their trusted advisers. But my advice makes my own stomach turn a bit as, although it explains why our leaders are smart to bullshit us, and that it might even be for own good at times, it is still an argument for deception or at least exaggeration and less transparency. 

I am thinking about this because, in a few days, I am going to be writing point 6 of my list over at HBR of 12 Things That Good Bosses Believe: "I strive to be confident enough to convince people that I am in charge, but humble enough to realize that I am often going to be wrong."

In light of the complex forces here -- the weird pressures to act confident but to avoid falling prey to evils of overconfidence and the apparent tension between being completely honest and being seen as a competent boss -- I would be extremely interested to hear your advice, reactions, and examples of how a good boss navigates through these complex forces.

About the author:

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford and a Professor of Organizational Behavior, by courtesy, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Read his Stanford faculty profile and check out some of the books he wrote, including the bestselling The No Asshole Rule (won 2007 Quill Award for best business book). His next book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, will be published in September 2010 by Business Plus. Sutton was named as one of 10 "B-School All-Stars” by BusinessWeek in 2007, which they described as "professors who are influencing contemporary business thinking far beyond academia.” He is a co-founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (""), which teaches, practices, and spreads "design thinking.” Bob's personal blog is Work Matters, and you can follow him on twitter @work_matters.

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