Professor Robert Sutton is, above all else, a humanist. That makes him something of a rare breed in the academy of elite management thinkers. Whereas many of the most noted business scholars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have made their mark by advancing the fields of strategy, finance, and broad organizational dynamics, Sutton has focused on revealing the role of the person. He studies how policies drive people and how people drive companies. When so much management theory pays lip service to individuals, assuming they are ultimately replaceable parts in a system—and that as long as they are treated well and suited to their duties, they will perform adequately—Sutton’s work often flips the equation.
In his delicately titled The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (Business Plus, 2010), for example, the Stanford professor of management science and engineering and cofounder of Stanford’s Institute of Design (known as the “d.school”) makes a compelling argument for one critical element that distinguishes high-performing companies: They don’t tolerate jerks. Even when he is exploring his passion for evidence-based management, as he does in the two books he has written with longtime Stanford colleague Jeffrey Pfeffer, Sutton seeks and extols the virtues of practices that directly affect and are affected by the behavior of unique human beings. As Sutton and Pfeffer wrote in their January 2006 Harvard Business Review article on evidence-based management, “Many practitioners and their advisers routinely ignore evidence about management practices that clashes with their beliefs and ideologies, and their own observations are contaminated by what they expect to see.” Even in the cold, hard world of evidence-driven theory, Sutton understands, it all comes down to the person.
Stanford's Robert Sutton discusses the mind-set and strategies of companies that are most adept at building and spreading high standards.
S+B: Let’s begin by talking about the mind-set of leaders who are adept at scaling excellence.
SUTTON: Leaders who are adept at scaling have an almost paradoxical mind-set. On one hand, they’re always focusing on cleaning things up—smoothing and clarifying policies and processes so they are more spreadable. They have a clear sense of the excellence they’re trying to spread and of where they’re going. On the other hand, they understand that life is messy, and there are going to be long stretches when they and their people are confused and don’t know exactly what needs to be done. But they urge people to keep moving forward in spite of that. That’s the paradox: They’re always trying to clean things up, but they embrace chaos and don’t let it stop them.
Take IDEO founder David Kelley, whom I’ve known for many years. David has this ability, when people are all worked up about how difficult and uncertain things are, to calm them down and say, “We’ve just got to keep going one step after another.” But then at the same time he tends to be quite picky and specific about what achieving excellence looks like. In some respects, his leadership style turns a lot of traditional management wisdom on its head—especially the direction we typically give to people with operational responsibilities. We’re often coached to drive for clarity in the near term while embracing the idea that the future is full of ambiguity.