Thirteen things I believe: Principles of organizational behavior

I have taught an introduction to organizational behavior class for over 30 years– to both undergraduate and graduate students. I first taught it as a doctoral student at The University of Michigan and taught an ever-evolving version of the class almost every year since I landed at Stanford in 1983. For many years, the final day, especially the final 20 minutes or so, felt awkward and forced as I struggled to look back on what the class had learned, provide closure, and end on an upbeat note. About 15 years ago, I experimented with an ending ritual: I passed out a list of 12 things I believe, made a brief comment about each one, and thanked the class for their efforts and for putting up with my quirks and imperfections. The list contained many beliefs that were related to the class. But they also drew on other work I hadn’t mentioned in class and my general perspective on life.

It worked and it still does. The students like it and it feels authentic. I’ve fiddled with different versions of this list over the years—items come and go, it gets longer and shorter, but it still feels like a useful ritual for wrapping up the class. About ten years ago, I put it on my old Work Matters blog and people seemed to like it there too – I have continued to tweak the list and update the links that explain my opinions in more detail. This post offers the latest “Things I Believe” list.

I was inspired to update and post it because I am working on a new “All Things Bob Sutton” site, which goes live in a couple weeks. The picture above will be at the top of the new site. I updated the silly “thinker” picture from my old blog with a new picture of the older me sitting at the same spot, next to “The Thinker” at the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden on the Stanford campus.

As with every other time I’ve revised this list, doing so forced me to think about what is important enough to remain, what I feel compelled to add, and what I best subtract to make room for new stuff (I did cheat a bit and expanded it from 12 to 13 things). Here is the current list—each but the last one has a link if you want to dig into it further. I hope you like it. And I would love to hear your reactions, suggestions, and critiques.

1. Sometimes the best management is no management at all — first do no harm!

2. The best leaders have “the attitude of wisdom,” the confidence to act on their convictions and the humility to keep searching for (and acting on) evidence that they are wrong.

3. Fight as if you are right; listen as if you are wrong.

4. Fear the clusterfuck (or “clusterfug”)–those debacles and disasters caused by a deadly brew of illusion, impatience, and incompetence that afflicts too many decision-makers, especially those in powerful, confident, and prestigious groups.

5. Big teams suck.

6. George Carlin was right. Too many people behave as if “my shit is stuff, and your stuff is shit.” It creates a lot of unnecessary friction and frustration.

7. If you are a winner and an asshole, you are still a loser in my book because you are harming so many other people in your lust to build something, make money, or dominate that competition.

8. Kurt Vonnegut was right.  It is often more constructive to tell yourself “I have enough” than to keep asking how you can get more and more and more. I don’t believe that people who die with the most money, fancy stuff, power, or prestige win the game of life.

9. If you are plagued by an asshole–or a pack of them–make a clean getaway if you can. If you can’t, develop a strategy for protecting yourself and fellow victims from the onslaught, for preserving your dignity and spirit, and for fighting back.

10. Indifference is as important as passion

11. “Am I a success or a failure?” is not a very useful question. It is better to ask “what am I learning.”

12. Life is always going to be a bit messy, especially if you are doing something interesting and new. Try to create as much simplicity and clarity as you can, but embrace (and enjoy) the inevitable confusion and messiness too.

13. Jimmy Maloney was right. Work is an overrated activity.

I left this last point unexplained on my published lists and without any links until now. Most readers got the message and only a few complained because I didn’t explore any nuances or talk about who the heck Jimmy Maloney was to me. Here, for the first time, is the background–which I always tell my class, but have never written about before.

About 20 years ago, I spent many of my weekends and vacations racing sailboats with my boyhood friend Jimmy Maloney. He had a serious and stressful job, but was making good money. He and his wife Loretta still found a lot of time to spend with each other and their three young kids. But Jimmy and Loretta felt oppressed by the rat race. And at the strangest moments–10 seconds before the start of a race, during complicated maneuvers such as tacks or jibes, or even the middle of a capsize– Jimmy would start bellowing “work is overrated” or “we are all suckers, most people wouldn’t work if they had a choice.” It wasn’t just hollow talk. Jim and Loretta quit their jobs, sold their house, bought a sailboat, and cruised with their kids for a couple years (Loretta is a schoolteacher, and she was very disciplined about teaching each kid the material required by their California school district). The family eventually landed in New Zealand, where they raised their kids. They work just enough to support a modest but healthy life. All three kids grew up to be great sailors too. In fact, their daughter Alex won a silver medal in the 2016 Olympics and his son Andy sailed on the New Zealand boat that just won the America’s Cup in 2017.

I like to end my class with that story because I am so focused on the workplace in my writings and research, and the students I teach at Stanford are such extreme overachievers, that it is useful to remind them (and myself), as Jimmy would put it, that “work is an overrated activity.”

P.S. I put my final exam question on the course outline, so students know it from the first day “Design the ideal organization. Use course concepts to defend your answer.”The quality, range, and imagination of these papers often stuns and delights me.

Bob Sutton is a Stanford Professor who studies and writes about leadership, organizational change, and navigating organizational life. Check out my new“All Things Bob Sutton” site, which includes a place to sign up for a free monthly newsletter, videos, links to my writings, and other goodies. Follow me on Twitter@work_matters. 

This column first appeared at LinkedIn.