There are plenty of jokes out there about bosses. For example, what’s the difference between your boss and a carp? One is a bottom-feeding scum sucker, and the other is a fish. Or what do your boss and a bottle of beer have in common? They’re both empty from the neck up.
Why the hate? Well, most people don’t like others telling them what to do. And when the person doing the telling is uninformed, rude, condescending, omnipresent, absent, or stinky, the enmity only grows.
These statistics from McKinsey highlight the complexity of office dynamics:
- 75% of workers consider their boss the most stressful part of the workday
- 56% of workers say their boss is toxic (yikes!)
- 86% of job satisfaction comes from workers’ relationships with management
If your employees had participated in this study, how do you think they would’ve responded to these questions? You’d probably never refer to yourself as “toxic.” But what boss would? Yet, more than half of America’s workers say that’s the case.
Obviously, there’s a disconnect between what most bosses think is going on and how their employees actually perceive it. The situation is even tougher to gauge because one person’s trash is another person’s treasure—the quirks and leadership methods that make you so unique will resonate beautifully with some folks while repelling others. And that’s not necessarily your fault.
“It’s crucial to realize up front that being a ‘better boss’ is a matter of perspective,” explains employee engagement expert Ben Fanning. “One boss might be a godsend for one employee and then an absolute nightmare for another. Your ‘better boss’ classification is always based on opinion, so it’s never the absolute truth. For example, your employees might interpret asking questions about a particular project as you being a distrusting ‘micro-manager,’ or maybe they interpret it as you just showing concern over their workload. Or an employee might interpret delegation of responsibilities as you not being involved enough in day-to-day activities and that you’re afraid to roll up your sleeves; while another employee may interpret the same actions as showing you trust your team and want to empower them to make an impact.”
Even accounting for the variability in employees’ perceptions, it is crucial for you to critically assess your strengths and weaknesses.
Go to the Source for Feedback
It’s important for any leader to have a mentor. These experienced individuals can offer firsthand advice and help you navigate the challenges of being a boss. Even if your mentor is an 80-year-old who retired long before the tech explosion and subsequent introduction of COVID-19, they’ll be able to provide evergreen wisdom that can be adapted to our current business landscape.
Your mentor might be employed at your business, a trusted friend from a past job, or part of your broader network. Just know that the questions they ask are incredibly beneficial. Even a small query can lead to breakthroughs in your focus and abilities.
“When my former boss resigned, my team and I were shifted under a new department in the company,” recalls leadership guru Avery Augustine. “And as my new boss tried to feel out this new team that she was leading, she started asking me questions: ‘Who on your team deserves a promotion?’ ‘Who isn’t performing up to standards?’ ‘How often do you have one-on-one meetings with your direct reports?’ And as I answered, ‘Um, I’m not sure,’ ‘I think everyone’s doing OK,’ and ‘Well, whenever I need to,’ respectively, I realized that I really wasn’t doing my job as best I could. I really wanted to be a great manager—but it was easy to see that I had become a little apathetic and wasn’t putting 100% effort into leading my team. Right then and there, I decided it was time to turn it around. I knew there wouldn’t be an immediate fix, but there were certainly some steps I could take toward becoming a more trusted, respected, and successful manager.”
While the words of your mentors can be powerful, there’s another source for insights that you should give at least equal weight—your employees. It’s a cruel irony that many leaders seek ideas from books, courses, and colleagues but never take the time to talk to their actual team.
Here’s a novel idea: take the time to sit down with your employees on a regular basis. These meetings shouldn’t be about performance reviews, safety training, or any other topic. They should be about pure, unadulterated feedback.
Possible questions you can ask include:
- How happy are you with my leadership?
- What am I currently doing that resonates with you?
- What can I start doing that would support you better?
- What is your preferred way to interact with your leader?
- What is your preferred communication style?
- What benefits are we currently offering that mean the most to you?
- What benefits should we consider introducing?
- What makes you happiest here in your role?
- What are the biggest stresses in your role?
- If you could change one thing about our work environment, what would it be?
The simple act of asking questions shows that you care about your people and their opinions. Just be sure to back it all up by actually listening to the responses and acting on the ideas whenever possible.
Building trust within your team starts through communication and is sustained through action. So you should take every possible opportunity to incorporate the feedback you receive. By the way—when you do act on employee feedback, make sure to communicate that it was a great idea from your people. There’s no reason to do it discreetly and lose out on the chance to show your commitment to making the work experience better for everyone.
Becoming a Better Leader Is an Ongoing Process
There’s always the risk of leaders experiencing some success with their teams and then doing some laurel-resting. Big mistake! Each time you take a step forward, celebrate by looking for additional ways to keep growing.
The fact is that bosses aren’t trained for the role from birth. While some leaders have strong abilities that come naturally, most of us are brought into the role through equal doses of performance and circumstances. And when the latter side of this ratio is larger than the former, it becomes even more important to put in the work to become better.
“Unfortunately, many people become a boss without getting proper training to manage,” says leadership expert Kevin Daum. “There is no sinister conspiracy at work—sometimes entrepreneurs focused on taking a product to market or heirs to family businesses find themselves in charge without knowing how to effectively manage people. Even great performers who rise to leadership positions may not have been trained to manage others. Being a boss isn’t complicated, but it does require some focused thought and attention to be amazing. And since many people are putting their faith in you, don’t you owe it to them to be your best for their sake?”
Being your best is important but being your best for each employee is the gold standard. Use their feedback to tailor your leadership style to their preferences and needs. You’ll obviously never be able to please everyone, but you can make yourself a better leader and increase the engagement of your team by demonstrating a desire to reach individuals on a personal level.
Leadership Tools of the Trade
The best leaders always have a wide range of tools in their toolbox. In order to reveal blind spots and take a proactive approach to improvement, you’ve got to be able to assess yourself honestly.
“The path to becoming a great boss starts with knowing and managing yourself,” says entrepreneurship professor Julian Birkinshaw. “We have all met leaders who can speak to a large group with conviction and authority but come across as cold and impersonal when talking to us individually. It’s hard to relate to these types of people. Instead, we warm to self-aware leaders who can admit to struggling with difficult decisions. Everyone can relate to a boss who comes across as human and fallible. After all, we all make mistakes.”
Let’s now look at some attributes and tools that leaders can use to become their best. You may already have mastered some of these, but we’re confident there will be at least a few that could be worked on.
We get it—you’re the boss. But that doesn’t mean you should spearhead every project and handle all the details. You should handle the tasks that are uniquely yours, then hand off others to qualified individuals on your team. Letting them rise to the occasion will do more than take work off your plate—it’ll set them up for success.
“Managers are responsible for developing their employees to ensure that they are well trained, to identify future leaders, and to prepare their own successor when they move up or move on to other organizations,” says the Society for Human Resource Management. “Delegating responsibility is a powerful statement to employees about how much they are trusted and how competent and valued they are considered to be to the company.”
The bottom line is that you should be giving your people opportunities to shine. Each delegated task is a chance for empowerment.
Highlight the Wins!
Speaking of setting your people up for success, be sure to highlight the times it happens. In this way, you’ll boost confidence and show that you’re noticing all aspects of performance, rather than just dwelling on weaknesses.
Each time you point out a strong performance on your team, you’ll build momentum. Continuous recognition doesn’t make it become cliché. Instead, it enhances culture and inspires others to excel in similar ways.
Set the Right Tone
There will certainly be times when you’re disappointed as a leader. Plans will flop, and deals will fall through. But your objective is to avoid grumbling and gossiping. When leaders complain, it is often seen as a green light for your team to do the same.
We’re not saying that you need to always plaster a smile on your face and pretend that things are perfect. But you can look for the good in tough situations and help your team navigate things without getting mired in negativity.
It doesn’t matter if your team is struggling or thriving—your honesty will always be valued. The same goes for situations where employees might not be meeting expectations. Ditch the passive-aggressive games and speak with them directly.
While candid conversations can get awkward, they also get to the heart of the situation. It’s always better to address things than to let them fester.
As a leader, you probably have high expectations for your team. So when they match those expectations, it can be tempting to think of the performance as merely meeting your standards. But that’s not necessarily fair to your people.
You can build morale and show your sincerity by saying thanks whenever it’s warranted. Doing so will help your people feel valued and also develop a culture of appreciation in your company.
Take Ownership (Even for the Bad)
Many “boss jokes” hinge on the fact that leaders tend to take credit for the work of others. You can avoid this stereotype through recognition and appreciation, as mentioned earlier.
Another important aspect of ownership is acknowledging your responsibility when things don’t turn out as well. While stealing credit for the good can be damaging, it’s even worse when you pass blame for the negative onto others.
Taking ownership doesn’t mean you always need to be the scapegoat for failure. But if you assess your role in these situations, you might find areas where you fell short.
Seek Out New Ideas
You have your own way of doing things. We all do. But successful leaders find better ways. Sometimes those ideas come from their team, while other great ideas come from outside of the organization. You just need to make yourself available to these potentially valuable insights.
“Continually reflect,” says Forbes. “Innovation isn’t in the trenches. Innovation happens when you know the problems and create space to marinate on solutions. Solutions appear when they are fueled by learning (reading, conferences, podcasts, videos, etc.), talking and/or listening to other thought leaders, and constantly being a curious student of culture and innovation. Ongoing reflecting keeps your mind in a state of creation.”
As you seek out ideas, you’ll be amazed by the many different sources that arise.
Set Realistic Goals
You can never get anywhere worth going if you don’t have a plan. Goals become the waypoints for your team, helping you tackle the right initiatives to achieve success.
Proper goals have a tendency to stretch us. Problems arise, however, when we make them too difficult to attain. Doing so doesn’t just lead to unmet objectives. It can also cause frustration, mockery, and a lack of confidence.
Choose Your Battles Wisely
You may think your people will admire the times you take up fights on their behalf. Yes, they will appreciate it when you advocate for them. But if you frequently go to battle, it runs the risk of making you appear abrasive and contentious. And it can lead to a lot of wasted time.
“According to some studies, the average employee spends nearly 3 hours per week on conflict,” says a leadership analysis from the University of Texas. “That’s a lot of wasted time, and it can have a lasting impact on the way your business functions. As a leader, your conflict resolution skills are critical to the team’s success and your employees’ job satisfaction.”
Great leaders understand the importance of balance. Don’t overwork your people. Don’t put them in situations that will stress them to the point of damage. Yes, you’re trying to get the best performance from them. But you need to also respect their limits.
As you prioritize the wellness of your people, you’ll also want to provide positive resources for them. Whether that’s access to a therapy app such as TalkSpace or a meditation room in your office, these efforts will demonstrate where your heart is.
Not only are healthier employees happier, but they’re also more productive. You’ll see improvements on all fronts as you make efforts to take care of your people.
Taking It to the Next Level—And the Next, and the Next
Leadership is truly a journey. Each experience presents new opportunities to learn and grow, though you have to allow it to happen. Absent this commitment to improvement, you can pass through years of being a boss without ever improving. And what a shame that would be.
The fact that you read all the way to the end of this article shows that your heart is in the right place. Keep up the good work, and you will accomplish great things with your team.