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Business Leadership

How to Be a Better Boss: Business Leadership Tips
by A. J. Schuler, Psy. D.

Surveys tell us that most people leave their jobs because they don’t like their boss. 

Sure, some leave for more money, or for more opportunity, but very often the deciding factor is that relationship with the boss.  When that relationship is bad, everything else is bad.  When that relationship is good, even other less-than-satisfactory conditions are both more tolerable and more likely to be worked out. 

And for those of you who want to build really strong organizations, the best performers are even more motivated by that relationship – and they are the most likely to jump when things are not right, since they will have more options open to them.  So, here’s a series of “do’s” and “don’ts”, to help you become a better boss:

To be a Better Boss, DO:

This worked really well for a coaching client recently, who had been appointed to a new high responsibility job in a new agency, where at some point she would have to create real pressure for change. She started her job right away by scheduling one-on-one time with each of her direct reports, spanning more than one city, by phone if not in person.  She took an open-ended approach to learning what each person liked about their work, what they did not like so much, what they hoped to do or achieve in the long term, what they saw as potential problems for the agency, etc. She got to know them by just listening in a non-threatening way, which gave her a lot of credibility right away, even though she was replacing a popular predecessor and coming from the outside.  She learned a lot that will make her more effective as she guides the organization in some new directions, and minimized the resistance she will likely encounter as she introduces new ideas and changes.  This is something any boss can do informally any time, or periodically, no matter how long he or she has been in the position.  Don’t make a big deal of it; just do it, or ask for time on people’s schedules just to catch up or take the pulse of the organization. 

Asking does not obligate you to give everyone what they want, but it’s better to know than not to know.  If you know what a person’s career or personal ambitions are, you can find creative ways to help them get where they want to go while also helping them serve the needs of the organization.  You likely won’t keep people forever, but if you make their paths through your organization also serves their needs, you win a referral source for other new people to come to your organization in the future, and maybe a chance to rehire a “boomerang” – someone who someday comes back to your organization and helps in a new way – in the future.

Some people need hands on supervision; some people like to learn by watching first and then doing.   Some people like to jump right in, make mistakes and then come to you when they have a question.  Some people like to read about things and like to be referred to courses or manuals, etc.  Some people won’t learn by reading at all.  Everyone learns differently, and as a manager, you are the one primarily responsible to see that people learn how to do their jobs with excellence:  it’s not the job of the training department, which is their to support you, but not do all the teaching for you.  Most managers mistakenly assume, without ever realizing it, that everyone learns the same way they themselves do.  Very, very few managers ask people how they learn best, and so most people, when asked, don’t know quite how to respond at first – they have to think about it.  Go ahead and ask anyway, and make them think!  Just by asking, you’ll help them take more responsibility for their own learning while also getting a sense of how best to manage them and guide their growth in the job.

Everyone has their “aces and spaces:” areas of greater talent and areas where they are not so strong.  But not all of us know ourselves well enough to know where those spaces are, and sometimes we misguide ourselves.  Sometimes, people have to learn through experience where they are not be suited to be, and in the process, you may lose some people who think they are most apt to do one kind of work when you see them as most fit for another.  But make some assessment of where each person’s leading edge talents may be, and be open to revision as you observe performance over time.  People generally will be happiest (and most productive) when they are doing what they do best, so try to guide them – and keep them challenged – in areas where they can stretch their talents and levels of performance while also contributing to the overall team mission – which you are responsible to promote.

This is not the same as being everyone’s “friend” – more on that later.  But being “friendly” goes a long way.  Smile, for heaven’s sake!  If people only get your focused attention when there’s trouble brewing, they’ll avoid you and hide a lot of information from you that you will need to manage the team effectively.  I’m not saying never set limits in ways that may make someone angry, but use a light touch when you can.  Most managers rely too much on their positional authority to get things done, when they could accomplish so much more by creating a looser atmosphere that nevertheless is very serious about performance and results.

Take an individualized approach, and when you see something that should be corrected in performance, don’t agonize for weeks or wait until the next formal evaluation period to deal with it.  Get into private conversation with the person right away, try to understand (without scolding) why your person did what they did in the way they did it, and then guide or correct them directly without a lot of fuss, if correction is indeed needed.  The first time you do this, your direct report may feel a little shaken, but be reassuring and don’t hold a grudge.  Teaching people is important, and lessons are much more easily learned when correction quickly follows a potential error.  You may need to wait a day or two if you find yourself frustrated or angry about the error, in which case it might help to wait a little until you can come across as less threatening and more open and rational. But deal with the problem if it is something that should be addressed. 

On the one hand, you don’t want to do this constantly so that people tense up all the time, but on the other, you don’t want to let things linger, which will reduce overall performance and lead to lots of angst and ill will when yearly employee evaluations come.  Dealing with people one-on-one is better than correcting in public – you don’t want to humiliate anyone in public, and it’s better to deal with each of your people as individuals. 

Most managers either make corrections too forcefully and sporadically – when they feel “fed up” – or they avoid conflict and the making of corrections altogether.  Both approaches stem from a lack of comfort with the appropriate use of authority.  Find a happy medium, stick with it, and be willing to discover occasions when you misunderstood the situation entirely and have to revise your initial take on the matter.  These teaching conversations should become two-way communications.  And if you teach this way, while also doing the things mentioned above to build better relationships with your direct reports, most people will appreciate that you are guiding them and not just scolding or “zapping” them. Just be sure to identify actual behaviors people can modify, and don’t fall into the trap of criticizing people’s personalities.

To be a Better Boss, DON’T:

If you were promoted from within, your relationships with the group and its individual members will change and the transition may not always be comfortable for you or the others.  That’s part of life.  Sometimes new managers, or internally promoted managers, try too hard to be everyone’s “friend,” to still be “one of the gang,” and that’s just not sustainable.  That does not mean you can’t have good relations with people, and it does not mean you can’t be friendly (see above).  You should have good relations and be personable and friendly – being a boss is mostly about having good people skills, and if you’re surly all the time and prefer to work alone, you probably should get out of a managerial role, for your sake and for everyone else’s.  But often for the most people-oriented among us, it really bothers us when we have to come across as the “bad guy,” though it is at times necessary.  Accept it and move on. You won’t be everyone’s friend, but be consoled: by being a good – or even great – “boss,” you can have an even greater, positive impact on people’s lives and their careers.

On the other hand, some people are way too quick to accept that they can’t be everyone’s friend, and then seem to act so as to prove it every day!  In my experience, these are usually people who are equally uncomfortable with being in authority, even if they seem to thrive on being the “boss” and proving it at every turn.  Real power is worn lightly.  If you find you feel as if you need to prove who’s in charge a lot, then you’ll be even less in charge than you think you are.  Look at the quote at the top from Dwight Eisenhower:  people will be able to get a sense of your underlying thoughts and attitudes over time, whether you speak them or not.  They’ll sense if you see them as “the enemy,” or if you’re always trying to prove you’re the smartest or most powerful or whatever. Take it easy; lighten up.  The truth is, if you exercise your “authority” too much or too harshly, you’ll have less legitimate authority in the end. You won’t be in charge; you’ll just be that nut who’s having another fit.

Some people want to learn new things. Some people don’t much worry about anything as long as they are paid well enough.  Some people want regular attention.  Some people want room to do their own thing as long as they produce. Some people would like to become supervisors or managers themselves.  Some people want to avoid ever becoming a “boss.”  Some people want the boss to know a little bit about and care about their families, personal lives, etc.  Some people want to keep their outside lives completely separate from the office.  Some people like to be thanked, recognized and praised frequently.  Some people just want a kind word every now and again, without a lot of fuss.  Some people would like to be given some public recognition.  Some people dread being singled out for attention, no matter how well intended the attention may be.  Some people want to have room to be a little creative or innovative.  Some people want things to stay pretty much the same without surprises, and prefer a lot of structure.  Some people don’t particularly want to be close to the boss, but all people want to feel pretty well understood by the boss.  Some people want the organization to pay some attention to their pet projects.  Some people care about the perks that can come with achievement or status (office locations, window offices, the big desk, etc.).  Some people could care less about status symbols and actually prefer to stay away from them. . .  You get the idea.  There is a lot of diversity of motivational styles out there, and chances are, your team members are all different from you in some significant ways.  Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to understanding others’ motivations, either purposely or inadvertently.  Listen, observe and ask questions.

Lots of managers prefer to avoid “singling anyone out,” thinking that this is a better approach to making corrections. Wrong!  All you do by going public is to start everyone speculating about your targeted person.  You also build resentment among those other team members who are being corrected when they themselves are not responsible for the problem.  You also miss the chance to do a more targeted, efficient job of coaching the one who made the error, so that person won’t likely learn well because of your scattershot, indirect, one-sided attempt at communication.  And since everyone will probably figure out who your intended target is, you will have essentially humiliated that person by letting everyone else know (indirectly) that they made an error. So bite the bullet, and assume the responsibility that comes with authority.  Correct – and coach – individuals in private.  Express thanks and give praise for good performance in public as well as in private - unless your targeted person really becomes uncomfortable with the attention that comes from being singled out for public praise. The exception to this comes in some military training settings where the goal is to create a strong sense of unit identity and interdependence, mitigating the need to take such a strong individualized approach.

Email is good for conveying basic information, clarifying simple inquiries, scheduling things, etc.  But email is a blunt communication instrument, and not very good when it comes to anything that can involve or incite emotion. Stay away from it for matters of coaching or any conflict.  It will only make things worse.  Talk on the phone or, better yet, in person for anything of importance.  Since email has become so easy, too much management has begun to rely on the making of proclamations or the issuing of decisions via email, avoiding personal or group contact, so people will lose the opportunity to ask clarifying questions, understand management intentions, etc. This only leads to problems. What seems like a time saver – email – in the short run can be a big time drainer in the long run when people misunderstand instructions or become resentful because of misinterpreted intentions.  A lot of the fractures that appear in organizations stem from lazy, poor communications from the top in the first place, breeding factions and hidden agendas among cliques in the long run.  Email also makes it very easy to fire off a message when people are frustrated, allowing people to say things they probably would not say in person.  How many of us have seen or been part of escalating streams of email arguments that quickly make all parties sound a bit like angry children? As manager or boss, set an opposite example.  Talk to people in person and let them ask questions, see your eyes and hear your tone of voice, whenever you can.

An organization is a living thing, and it requires a certain amount of maintenance, even hygienic attention. It can be easy as a boss to get so task focused and busy that you lose touch with what’s going on with your people. Check in and take the temperature of the group, and of individuals, every now and then, outside of the daily task and routine.  That’s how you can keep a team or unit functioning at its highest level over a sustained period of time.  Don’t get lazy with your relationships, or take them for granted (a good rule of thumb for the work environment and for a family or for a marriage, actually).

Attention can itself be a reinforcer. Anyone who has children knows this. Sometimes just paying attention to an undesirable behavior helps to sustain and promote it.  This happens in the office, too.  Don’t get caught in that trap.  And there’s another reason not to spend the majority of your time on “problem” people:  you lose the opportunity to build on the performances of your stronger people. How does this work?  Your stronger people will have the best new ideas. New ideas can be built into successful new processes.  Successful new processes can make the organization far better in accomplishing its mission, making everyone more productive.  But if you’re busy focusing on the “problem” people, you’ll never notice ways to build with your best people.  Even more, for many of your highest performers, your attention is – guess what? – a positive reinforcer, helping to promote the desirable behaviors you’d like to bring out of them and others.  If you find yourself spending the majority of your time on “problem” people, you may need to recast them so their jobs better fit their talents, or even move them out of the organization, because people seldom change very much. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that good “bosses” and mentors spend most of their time trying to “help” problem people – that’s backward, unless your job is social work.  As a boss, you’ll be most successful surrounding yourself with high performers and working to bring out their best.  But if you feel you need to be the smartest person in the group, you’re not being very . . . smart!

Copyright (c) 2003 A. J. Schuler, Psy. D.
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Dr. A. J. Schuler is an expert in leadership and organizational change. To find out more about his programs and services, visit or call (703) 370-6545. 

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