Friday, May 08, 2015

Why is Your Boss Such an A**hole?

In 2010, Bob Sutton from Stanford University wrote a great book called The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn't.  This book was sitting on my desk when, a year later, I got a call from a dean at Princeton asking me to come teach a course on organizational behavior to mid-career and advanced graduate students.

I asked what she wanted me to teach, and she said,  "The students graduate from here all revved up with idealism and excellent analytical skills, but soon after returning to the workplace they usually end up hating their bosses and disillusioned because they don't know how to navigate organizations."

"Great," I replied. "I am a little busy taking it easy after working my butt off for the last twenty-five years, but if you send me the syllabus, I will consider it."

"There's no syllabus," she replied. "You have to make it up.  And you owe us one, because we gave you a full scholarship to grad school back in 1983."

So I had no choice, and I agreed.  As I started thinking about the course, I figured it might be useful if, instead of getting angry or cynical once they returned to work, students could get insights into why their bosses and colleagues were behaving badly.  What if they were prepared for certain pathologies and could be armed with a few judo-like strategies for working with the pathologies instead of against them?

I did a bunch of reading and thinking and came up with a syllabus and sent it in to the registrar's office.  A couple days later my phone rang, and it was a guy from the registrar's office.

"What will the course title be?" he asked me.

"I don't know," I replied.  "How about Why Your Boss is such an Asshole - or Sometimes Your Boss Really is An Asshole, but Often She is Just Responding to Incentives."

Silence for a couple of beats.  "Umm...we can't use the 'A' word in a course title," he replied slowly, and then his voice got lower, almost a whisper:  "I would personally love to take that course, but we usually have titles that are more turgid."

"Ok, well then, how about something boring like "Tools for Organizational Analysis and Reform: Surviving and Thriving in Public Organizations?"

"That's perfect!" he said brightly.

Many people have asked me about this course, so I am posting it here.