Bob Sutton

Speech Topics

Robert Sutton, along with colleague Hayagreeva Rao, spent the last decade working to uncover how the best leaders and organizations spread excellence: from people and places that have it, to those that don’t. Sutton shows how the fate of every organization depends on building or finding pockets of exemplary performance, and—more importantly—how to spread those splendid deeds from the few to the many. Scaling well requires more than just creating a big footprint in a small amount of time—it entails developing, spreading, and preserving the right shared beliefs about which behaviors are “sacred” and which “taboo”. He shares lessons and principles that can be applied to organizations of every size and stripe: including that scaling is a problem of more and less, the power of linking hot causes to cool solutions, cut cognitive load while maintaining necessary organizational complexity, connect pockets of existing excellence and cascade them to new places, and bad is stronger than good. He ends by arguing that, under even the best conditions, scaling is always a messy and uncertain process.

“Things are so hard to get done around here.”  “It feels like we are walking in muck.”  “The bigger and more successful we get, the slower we get.”    … Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao heard concerns like these during every speech and informal conversation with leaders they’ve had since publishing Scaling Up Excellence. So they’ve turned their attention to multi-year project on organizational friction, a theme that they have been working on since 2016, and will chip away at in their research, writing, and speaking for at least the next three years.   Sutton’s evolving speech on friction digs into the causes of destructive friction including misguided incentives and organizational designs that blind decision-makers to unnecessary frustration and fatigue imposed on employees and customers.  He digs into “friction removal tools” that leaders can use to redesign incentives and structures, and remake organizational cultures, and change the little things they do for the better. Sutton also discusses the virtues of organizational friction, how and why the best leaders and organizations make certain things more difficult or impossible to do—ranging from unethical behavior, disrespecting colleagues and customers, and adding destructive friction.

Sutton weaves together the best psychological and management research with true stories to reveal the mindset and moves of the best bosses – which he bolsters by contrasting them with evidence on how the worst bosses think of themselves and treat their people. Sutton shows how bosses can master essentials including striking just the right balance between being too assertive and not assertive and doing dirty work like disciplining and firing employees in timely and humane ways.

In the decade since Sutton published his New York Times bestseller, The No Asshole Rule,  thousands of people who read the book or heard him talk about have asked, in one way or another, “Help. I am dealing with an asshole (or a bunch of them), what should I do about it.”    Sutton’s new book The Asshole Survival Guide is devoted to answering this question.  Sutton starts with diagnosis—what kind of asshole problem, exactly, are people dealing with? From there, he provides field‑tested, evidence‑based, and sometimes surprising strategies for dealing with assholes—avoiding them, outwitting them, disarming them, sending them packing, and developing protective psychological armor.  Sutton also shows people how to look inward to identify and stifle their own inner jackass. Sutton’s speech on the new book also weaves in leadership and organizational design practices that leaders and others who have influence over workplaces can use to build more civilized and psychological— yet effective and non-nonsense—workplaces.


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Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering and Professor of Organizational Behavior (by courtesy) at Stanford. He co-founded the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (which everyone calls “the d school”). Sutton received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from The University of Michigan and has served on the Stanford faculty since 1983. He is a Fellow at IDEO, Senior Scientist at Gallup, advisor to McKinsey & Company, and academic director of two executive education programs: Customer-Focused Innovation and the Stanford Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate. He has served a professor at the Haas Business School, a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and faculty at the World Economic Forum at Davos.

Sutton studies organizational change, leadership, innovation, and workplace dynamics. He has published over 150 articles and chapters in peer-reviewed journals, management outlets such as Harvard Business Review and the McKinsey Quarterly, and news outlets including The New York Times, Financial Times, and Wall Street Journal. His books include Weird Ideas That Work: 11 ½ Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Firms Turn Knowledge into Action (with Jeffrey Pfeffer), and Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management (with Jeffrey Pfeffer), which the The Globe and Mail selected as the best business book of 2006. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t and Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…. and Survive the Worst are New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers. He co-authored Scaling-Up Excellence: Getting to More without Settling for Less with Huggy Rao in 2014. Scaling Up Excellence was a Wall Street Journal bestseller and 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.

The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt (September 2017) is a continuation of the best seller, The No Asshole Rule, nearly a decade later. Sutton’s current project, with Huggy Rao, focuses on the causes of and cures for destructive organizational friction—and on when and why friction is a good thing.

Professor Sutton’s honors include the award for the best paper published in the Academy of Management Journal in 1989, the Eugene L. Grant Award for Excellence in Teaching, selection by Business 2.0 as a leading “management guru” in 2002, and the award for the best article published in the Academy of Management Review in 2005. The London Business School selected Sutton for the 2014 Sumantra Ghoshal Award “for rigour and relevance in the study of management.” The American Management Association selected Sutton as one of the top 30 leaders who most influenced business in 2014 (ranking him 10th on their list). Sutton was named as one of 10 “B-School All-Stars” by BusinessWeek, which they described as “professors who are influencing contemporary business thinking far beyond academia.”

Sutton has given keynote speeches to more than 200 groups in 20 countries. His writings and opinions are often described in places including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Financial Times, Esquire, Fortune, Wall Street Journal, Wired, TechCrunch, Vanity Fair, and Washington Post. Sutton has been a guest on many radio and television shows, including on ABC, Bloomberg, BBC, CNBC, Fox, NBC Today Show, KGO, PBS, NPR, Marketplace, and CNN. His personal site is at and he blogs at Harvard Business Review, Medium, and as an “influencer” on LinkedIn. Sutton tweets @work_matters.

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