Interview With Robert Sutton

Robert Sutton is a Professor of Management Science and Engineering and Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford, and a renowned expert on organizational change, leadership, innovation, and workplace dynamics. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from The University of Michigan and has served on the Stanford faculty since 1983.  In addition to being a Fellow at IDEO, Senior Scientist at Gallup, and advisor to McKinsey & Company, Sutton has published over 150 articles and chapters in peer-reviewed journals and news outlets, including The New York Times, Financial Times, and Wall Street Journal.  His books The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss are New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers, respectively. His most recent publication, Scaling-Up Excellence, was selected as one of the best business books of the year by Amazon, the Financial Times, Inc., The Globe and Mail, and Library Journal. His upcoming book is The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt, and will be released nationwide on September 12, 2017!

What are 3 things or experiences that bring you the greatest sense of fulfillment in life?

  • Taking a nice long walk with my wife, Marina.
  • Writing a paragraph I am proud of.
  • Helping a friend, colleague, or student who needs a hand or a boost

What are small things you do every day to be happy/fulfilled?

  • Having a fairly long dinner with wife and adult kids (when they are in town)
  • Having a chat with a smart and caring student or former student.
  • Having as little contact as possible with administrators— especially the ones who are assholes.

People often find they don’t have enough time. How do you make time for those?

I am not very good at multitasking and I don’t like meetings.   I am good at hiding and declining meetings.   For better or worse, I have almost no FOMO at all (Fear of Missing Out) or need to be in leadership positions.  I still just want to talk to smart people, read new things, and write stuff.  Sometimes my “Fear of Being There” (FOBT?) leads me to miss things I might regret, but not very often.

What health habits do you stick to no matter what?

Well, I try to go for at least a short bike ride every day; I fail about half time.  I have noticed that the more I ride my bike and the more time I spend writing, the happier and healthier I am.

What’s your best relationship tip?

My wife Marina and I have been living together for some 40 years (since we were undergraduates at Berkeley).  One of the keys to our relationship is we are usually pretty good at ignoring each other for long stretches so we can regroup and think.  We both are fairly introverted (especially her), but have jobs that entail a lot of interaction with others (She is CEO of a nonprofit).  A warm and friendly silence is a beautiful thing.

You seem to balance both happiness and success. What’s your secret to being happy and productive?

I am least happy when I think about success or failure as an end, or when I compare myself to others.  I am happiest when I focus on the little steps and on the process. Working with people who talk about winning and being number one is not my idea of fun.  I like working with people who know the big goal, but but spend their days and hours focused on doing the little things well, and with joy and civility.   Also, and there is research to support this, when I focus on just doing the best work I can, and being the best Bob Sutton I can be, rather than comparing myself to others, I am happiest and do better work.  That is the biggest gift my parents gave me. They thought that such comparisons were bad for your mind, and made you selfish.

What – in your opinion – is the best way to spread happiness and fulfillment to others?

To ask more questions, to learn what people want and need, and to help them achieve it, rather than to impose your definition of success on them.

What is a quote you live by?

“Fight as if you are right. Listen as if you are wrong.”  I think the psychologist Karl Weick said that (I am not sure, and neither is he).

Another one I like, something I believe more strongly every year: “If you are a winner and an asshole, you are still a loser as a human being in my book.”

Be sure to check out Dr. Sutton’s upcoming publication, The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt!

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