Culbert, Sam

Sam CulbertSamuel A. Culbert is Professor of Management at UCLA's Anderson Graduate School of Management. He also has an active consulting practice, specializing in areas of executive communication and teamwork; trust building and organizational effectiveness; and leadership development and corporate strategizing. Culbert is the author or coauthor of several books, including The Invisible War: Pursuing Self-Interests At Work, which won the AAP award as the best business and management book published that year, and Mind-Set Management: The Heart of Leadership.

Update 2008! Sam has a new book, Beyond Bullsh*t, and a new book site,

    BeyondBullsht_sm.jpg asks …

Your book is titled Don’t Kill the Bosses: Escaping the Hierarchy Trap. What is the hierarchy trap?

SC: The book is about boss-dominated relationships. By saying, “Don’t kill the bosses,” we’re not thinking about anybody being murdered, but we are thinking about killing the idea that bosses have the right to dominate. I mean, after all that’s been said about the advantages of empowerment, participation, and teamwork, how it is possible that we continue to let bosses dominate and subordinates fake acquiescence to the extent that both do today?

The hierarchy trap has to do with the confusion that leads to boss-dominated relationships. People confuse the organization structure and chart with hierarchy in relationships. Relationships shouldn’t be hierarchical. Relationships are where we want people to engage in give and take, open-mindedness, and a free-flowing exchange of ideas. But people bring hierarchy into relationships and that becomes a systematic source of ineffectiveness and corruption.

And yet this has been the situation for—

SC: Since the beginning of time.

Apparently it’s a default situation because everyone has succumbed to it. I know people who try to break out of it. Invariably, they’re fired. Why is this the default?

SC: It’s the default situation because of the way people play politics. People who have the power pretend they don’t have the power. Why would a subordinate want to tell a boss something the boss doesn’t want to hear when that boss has so much influence over his or her pay, job assignments, and career progress, at least in the person’s mind? And there are insufficient checks and balances in the person’s mind about the source of power. You wind up in situations where subordinates are going to stand accountable for thinking and doing as the boss wants them to.

And yet notwithstanding the current moment in time where everything seems to be near freefall, the American economy seems to have done very well with Corporate America exhibiting all of these hierarchical tendencies.

SC: Apparently, it did pretty well. But in any instance where you’ve had a hierarchical relationship, I guarantee you the company lost out. Whether we’re talking about wasted resources or opportunities that failed or we’re talking about the day-to-day education that people at work are supposed to get from exchanging ideas, when the boss doesn’t know what the subordinate thinks, that boss doesn’t have the opportunity to learn and grow from it and the subordinate walks around thinking he or she is the smartest person in the world because those ideas haven’t been engaged. And it’s not a matter of who’s right or wrong; it’s a matter of iterating and going forward and people learning from the exchange.

You maintain that part of the solution is something called two-sided accountability. What do you mean by that?

SC: In a boss-dominated relationship, typically you have one-sided accountability. The subordinate has to answer for methods and results, and then stand accountable for evaluation. The boss gets off with basically very little accountability. There are so many examples of bosses who succeed while the subordinates that they hired, were supposed to have trained, were supposed to guide, whose success they were supposed to ensure, are identified as failures and discarded. They lose their jobs or they wind up in lousy positions.

What I’m advocating is revamping relationships to be non-hierarchical. By non-hierarchical I mean two-sided accountability. It isn’t a mirror-image accountability, where the subordinate is accountable for precisely what the boss is accountable, and vice-versa, but the boss has certain obligations to ensure success of the operation that he or she should not be escaping.

It’s a different type of relationship when bosses are accountable for making sure their subordinates succeed. That kind of relationship requires give and take exchanges.

An earlier point you made was that at work we’re always acting in our own self-interest. And we either lie to ourselves or we lie to others when we say, “I’m doing this because it is in the best interest of the company.” And yet, the fact is, it’s okay to be doing something in your own self-interest. It’s only natural; it’s only human. And your point seems to be accept that fact, deal with it, and understand that every person you’re dealing with is also doing work, doing their jobs in a self-interested way.

SC: This is an issue that I dealt with in a book I coauthored some time ago with Jack McDonough called The Invisible War: The Pursuit of Self-Interest At Work. Pursuing self-interests is a fundamental issue in determining the interpersonal politics that take place every moment at work in terms of what we call events and what we require as the methodology for dealing with problems or pursuing opportunities. So yes, self-interests are part and parcel of everything anyone says at work.

The problem with people hiding self-interests behind their statements about what’s good for the company is that they don’t take responsibility for the fact that the company makes out best when everyone’s self-interests are taken care of and that the company seldom does very well when a key person’s self-interests are unfulfilled.

When we talk about non-hierarchical relationships, we’re talking about relationships in which the politics aren’t the win-win that’s good for the company and just by accident, a happy coincidence, or by fundamental human instincts, also good for me. We’re talking about relationships in which the politics are win-win-win with the third win consideration for what’s good for the other guy.

On page 139 you write, “Two-sided accountability requires the boss to work on developing a capacity to live with tension and differences that aren’t reconciled.” For me it’s one of the most important statements because I see this as a great shortcoming of most of the managers I’ve known. They need resolution. They want something solved. There’s a problem, there’s an issue, they think there’s got to be an answer to it. But there’s also an issue here about women managers and the differences between men and women in that women, it seems, generally tend to be able to deal with ambiguity more readily than men do. And I’m wondering if you see that this two-sided accountability might be something that women managers maybe more easily deal with than men?

SC: I haven’t thought of it that way and off the top of the head, I don’t think I would. I think that people are forceful in insisting that situations be formulated in ways that make them personally, self-interestedly comfortable. Bosses misuse their power and authority to force ways of seeing situations on people, thinking they can get away with it. I think women do that as often as men.

We’re on very sensitive ground. But some people do it by venting emotions and intimidating subordinates. Some people do it by nodding their head and pretending to listen when they’re not listening. There’s many different ways to do it but I think that basically people misuse boss-subordinate relationships as a vehicle for not dealing with that which makes them uncomfortable.

You propose a way to create two-sided accountability within the workplace. Can you describe that?

SC: Meaning how do you get the kind of give and take relationships so that bosses take responsibility for making sure that the team effort makes out wonderfully, that the outcome for the company is good, and the outcome for the individuals is good.

How do people get into that kind of relationship? Certainly it’s not one where the boss has unilateral authority to evaluate and judge the performance of the subordinate without some kind of reciprocity, reciprocity that’s real enough for the boss to be concerned with the perceptions of the subordinate. At that point we’re talking about redoing relationships.

We’ve got a wonderful example right now with President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. Finally we’ve been treated to a relationship between a boss and a subordinate where it does not appear that one is bossing the other. It appears, at least to my eye, like there’s some degree of parity in the relationship where they pay attention and help one another and direct one another and that there is probably some open-minded give and take exchange. In fact, to me it appears like there’s a lot of mentoring going on from Cheney to Bush.

What we want are relationships where subordinates are not afraid of unilateral evaluation, where the evaluation that takes place is a moment in time, not a fixed judgment but a source of feedback and critique aimed at assisting that individuals learn the next lesson and become even more competent than they are today.

How do you get non-hierarchical, two-sided accountable where the boss is as concerned about the subordinate’s competent functioning and the subordinate is concerned about keeping the boss informed in such a way that the boss operates most intelligently and is willing to stand accountable for the effectiveness of the group?

But you propose a methodology in the book about having the boss’s boss involved in the subordinate’s evaluation so that you automatically create parity in how you structure your organization.

SC: I propose that as one way of systemically creating two-sided accountability, putting people whose understanding of the situation hasn’t evolved to a level of consciousness where they can have the experience of being in a two-sided accountable relationship. But I’m not proposing this as a panacea. What I am proposing as the systemic way of getting to two-sided accountability is for people to face up to some basic facts about human nature and the politics of their existence in a hierarchical organization.

When bosses face up to the fact that everybody sees every situation differently, when the boss really internalizes that, then she or he can never assume that an individual is going to see the situation as the boss has seen it or would think to take the same actions that the boss would take in that situation. Thinking this way, a person knows not to give an order, but instead to find out what the other person thinks about the situation at hand.

Instead of giving directives, you start asking questions. You start a more thorough inquiry into what’s up with this individual, how she or he sees the situation, what’s that person’s inclination for progressing, and only after all that is out on the table can you start to have an intelligent conversation with somebody. It takes a lot more time.

And that’s why we have boss-dominated relationships because bosses think it’s more efficient to just give an order. And that’s what’s really crazy because it may be more efficient in their minds, but in action it’s the least efficient way of proceeding. There’s a crazy overtone to the whole situation because I don’t know a single boss who isn’t also a subordinate who’s had all of these subordinate experiences and probably even has it today with respect to his or her boss. And that person then is naively operating with direct reports as if they’re in the boat and there’s trust and there’s concurrence. Their own experience should have taught them to be far more suspicious.

But they’ve had to fight their way up through some system where they’ve been the subordinate and they’ve had to figure out some political maneuvering to get themselves up the ladder, so they say, “Listen, everyone else has got to fight their way up the ladder the way I did.”

SC: I agree precisely. They had to fight their way up. How did they fight? By manipulating, by deceiving, by placating, by doing what the boss wants and not necessarily what the company needs, by keeping quiet, that’s how they did it. Now they’ve got subordinates. What assumptions should they be making about their subordinates? Should they be taking at face value the Kabuki Theater to which they’re being treated on a daily basis? They should have learned from what their bosses faced. People disconnect from that.

I’m talking about people internalizing certain human nature truths, accepting in others what we so easily and readily accept in ourselves, and dealing with that as fact. Are you biased? I’m biased. Are you self-interested? I’m self-interested all the time. Can I look you in the eye and tell you I strongly believe what you’re saying when there’s an immediate reward for me when I do? Yes, I’m capable of that. Why isn’t the other guy? Get real. Get realistic about dealing with people.

But I don’t think people are realistic about dealing with themselves. I don’t believe that people, inasmuch as they have maneuvered and connived and back-stabbed, don’t really attribute to themselves those qualities that they’ve exhibited, right?

SC: People say, “I wasn’t conniving. You forced me to do it.” We excuse it in ourselves. I agree with you. But what are we talking about? We’re talking about facing up to some human nature facts. Why? So we can operate more effectively for ourselves and in all of our relationships including relationships at work, relationships in our personal life, and accepting these truths as also characteristic of other people. So what do we learn? We learn I’m different than anyone else.

So I’m dealing with a new subordinate. It’s not the same guy that I had last week. It’s a new person. He’s different; she’s different than anybody I’ve ever met before. How should I proceed? Well, if I’ve got somebody who’s brand new different, the best way to give direction is to shut up and listen. It is not to start speaking your own ideas and your own rhetoric and thinking that because the person heard you, she or he got it straight and is going to buy in, particularly while that head is nodding up and down.

Once you assume self-interest, then we start talking about organization politics. Stop getting indignant when the other guy frames the situation in a way that you don’t think is honest because, to start off with, the only reason why you don’t think it’s honest is because that framing isn’t good for you. If it were good for you, you’d think it was an honest, fair-minded, darn good framing of the situation.

What is human nature? Can we live according to the human nature truths that we already know when we, as you already said, fail to accept about ourselves? And can we start accepting that the underlying structure of organizations is a structure of self-interest? And that if you’re going to play politics, you need to be aware of the other guy’s interests so that inadvertently you don’t frame him out? And if he or she is on your team—and at some level everybody in the company is on your team—then you try to frame or reframe the situation so it’s also good for that individual. Or ask that person to perform a different assignment.

But you can’t put people in situations that aren’t fundamentally good for their self-interests, which you may or may not know about, and expect them to be good teammates. You can’t lead people who aren’t on the same page with you.

In the book you say that you’ve worked with some CEOs in consulting situations and then proposed to them this way of creating two-sided accountability within their organizations. And my impression is that generally they just say there’s no way that could happen, if I’m not misquoting.

SC: Top of the head, until they think it through, that’s the reaction. But when they own the company, that’s never their reaction. If the person owns the company, the person does not want to have boss-dominated relationships in the company. It should be the same for all high-level executives. It’s their job to make it possible for people to have two-sided accountable relationships. And if they don’t know how to do that, then they’d better go to school to find out.

Otherwise what you’ve got are people high in the hierarchy who are feeding their own self-interests, stealing the high prestige assignments off the top, and sticking the other guys with the grunt work and being surprised when they don’t perform effectively.

If there’s a big idea in the book, it’s that when we’re talking structure, hierarchy is really important. In fact, there are too few companies with organization charts that have clarity of authority and responsibility to the point that the people in that hierarchical chain can appropriately stand accountable for results.

That’s where you need to get accountability. You need to get it on the chart. Then in order for people to work on good results, you’ve got to get it out of the relationships. You’ve got to get authority out of the relationships. You’ve got to get accountability in, because you think of every relationship as a team and both people need to hold one another accountable for producing results, results for the company. And results for the company means results in a fashion that causes the other guy to be more effective because each person’s effectiveness is a positive for the company.

Does this apply to entrepreneurs, to startup companies? Everybody does eight different things and they’re all proud of the fact. It’s obviously a difficult thing to do, to lay out a very well-organized chart.

SC: Usually when starting a new enterprise, everyone has the same vision and usually everyone is more or less on the same page. I agree with you when everyone’s needs and interests are well aligned.

And if what you’re doing doesn’t look like it’s going to come to the bottom line that I need it to, I’m going to be pretty straight in telling you what you’re up to is screwing things up for me and I need you to do it differently. And you might be so concerned that you’ll sit down and talk with me about whether there is any other way you can do it so that it’s not just effective for your operation but it also helps my operation be more effective. That is two-sided accountability.

Now we’re talking about established companies where people are more into their careers and getting ahead individually. It’s a different situation. Now how do you operate? You need to invent two-sided accountability.

What you described in these startup entrepreneurial efforts, that’s just saturated with two-sided accountability, where you can walk into the president or innovator’s office and slam something down on the table and say, “This just doesn’t cut it,” and know that you’re still going to be there the next morning. That’s not what people think when they work at the big companies.

If you want to see an activity that really saps people’s time, go to middle and upper management and take a stopwatch out and time all the conversations and meetings held about, “How are we going to say this to the other guy?” People spend ten hours figuring out how they’re going to frame a 15-minute conversation that someone is going to see cutting across their interests.

The infamous meeting before the meeting, right?

SC: Well, how come? How come people need to do that?

Because they’re dishonest. They’re figuring out how to get the result of the meeting to go their way before they go to the meeting.

SC: Because they’re taking care of themselves and they’re trying to take care of the company. Almost always people believe what they’re doing is good for the company and good for the bottom line. That’s how people justify all that time in “pre-meetings.”

It would be much more efficient if they’d ask a different question. If they’d go to the meeting and say, “How come you guys want to do it this other way? How does that benefit your interests? Because if we do it your way, it screws things up for us.” People don’t talk like that. People don’t say, “Can you guys try to reconfigure that plan so that it doesn’t do A, B, and C, which makes it tough for us?”

As you say, people don’t actually talk like that. What has to change for them to be able to confront each other?

SC: If you don’t have boss-dominated relationships, they’ll change in a second. It’s only because people fear consequences from people higher up in the hierarchy that causes them not to straightforwardly say what they want to say. We’re not talking about people that are that different from you and me. We’re talking about people just like us.

I know about myself there’s nothing I want more than to be a straight-shooter. I think that’s true for every one. If it doesn’t cost me, I’ll be a straight-shooter. So now we’re back to the boss-dominated relationships.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be bosses. As I said before, I am a firm believer in a good, clean, hierarchical organization chart because then I know who’s responsible for what decisions. I know who has the authority. And in that situation, people can open-mindedly listen to all points of view because they know at the end of the day they’re going to be held accountable for the results. So you might as well hear all the guys that don’t think like you because one of those guys may have a great idea for you to use.

Then you make the decision because you’re going to stand accountable. The reason people don’t listen to one another is that they don’t see the necessity. They know they’re not going to stand accountable. When things don’t work out the way they were supposed to, I got all the guys below me to pass the buck down to and blame for what went wrong.

Based on that, I don’t have to take the time and there’s no real political pressure on me to be open-minded and receptive. There is some political pressure to do the face-work, to pretend that I’m listening to people, to nod my head and hold the meeting. But there’s no reason for me to have to change my mind because I’m going to do it in the way I know best. And I’m not that interested in other people seeing I need help.

You fix that accountability squarely and people have a damn good reason to be more open-minded and to listen and to want to listen. And if they want to listen, bosses will stage the situation so it’s safer for subordinates to speak their mind. Right now it requires daily acts of heroism for people to stand up and say what they think the boss doesn’t want to hear. It shouldn’t be a heroic effort. It ought to be good, clean give and take.

Knowing what you know now, how does this affect your behavior? You’re teaching at a university. You’ve certainly got your own bureaucracy there to deal with. How does it manifest itself in your day-to-day dealings?

SC: It’s an unfair comparison because as a tenured, full professor I don’t have a boss who can give out punishments.

But you have subordinates.

SC: That’s right. There are issues that I’ve always been aware of. I’ve been pushing for 30 years this notion of facing up to the subjective side of management and getting real and demystifying situations at work.

Are you frustrated or do you see hope?

SC: I always see hope. That’s why I write optimistic books. And I believe this time we’ve got the angle because now we’re not talking about self-help; we’re talking about a situation that almost everybody can relate to. If you’ve got a good boss-subordinate relationship today, you know you may not have one with a different boss tomorrow, or you sure know that yesterday you didn’t have one. That’s a topic that everybody complains about.


SC: Bosses complain about it and subordinates complain about it. It is the migraine headache nightmare topic at work. Nobody ever says “boss” without putting an adjective in one place or the other.

Thank you.

Web site:


Don’t Kill the Bosses! Escaping the Hierarchy Trap (coauthor)
Mind-Set Management: The Heart of Leadership
Radical Management: Power Politics and the Pursuit of Trust (coauthor)
The Invisible War: Pursuing Self-Interests At Work