How to be a Good Boss – It’s Just Not as Simple as it Sometimes Looks

There is no simple set of tips that will help you be a good manager or boss. (Photo illustration by istockphoto.com)

Here’s a great question that I almost never hear anyone ask, much less answer: How can you be a good boss?

This question popped into my mind today while reading The Wall Street Journal’s India RealTime blog’s latest post that was titled, appropriately enough, How to be a Good Boss.

Okay, I’ll bite. I’ve supervised people and been a boss for longer than I care to admit, and I’ve learned the hard way how to do it – through real life, on-the-job, thrown-into-the-breech experience. I’ve struggled to learn how to be a boss and a manager, and how to do it right.

But I’ve also seen how to do it wrong. I’ve observed (because I usually worked for them) far too many bad managers, and of course, some really terrible, dreadful bosses. That’s what made me so interested in finding out what this Journal story had to say, and they broke down how to be a good manager to these five tips:

  • Give coherent communication;
  • Appreciate and criticize;
  • Learn to listen;
  • Walk the talk; and,
  • Be friendly, but not necessarily friends.

The Journal story gives a lot more details, of course, but this is a pretty good list, especially when you consider that management and HR practices in India are racing to try to catch up with countries like the Unites States, Canada, and Great Britain. As the Indian economy explodes, so does the need for smarter and more skillful managers, and this Journal story speaks to that need.

But, I would add a few caveats to these management tips that the Journal story didn’t get into:

1. There is no such thing as over communication

Employees at most companies are desperate for communication. I’m amazed that no matter how much the manager thinks they may be communicating, employees always want much, much more. And, they want it in any and every format possible – one-on-one, team meetings, by email, or memo, or any other means you can dream up.

Workers who feel they are in the loop and know what is going on do better work. Plus, knowing what is happening helps to cut down on what happens when you under communicate – rampant gossip and speculation. The more that happens, the less productive and focused your staff is on the job at hand.

I’ve found however, that many managers are terrible communicators. In fact, my observation is that the higher someone rises in the organization, the worse their communication skills get. And, it seems to be something that all those high-paid but generally worthless executive coaches that top managers hire seem to completely miss.

Take it from me: you can’t over communicate. No matter how much you communicate now, you would do well to at least double it, and, make sure that whatever the message is that you give it in at least two different formats. Yes, the more you communicate the more you’ll get out of your team. They will be happier and more productive – and you will be, too.

2. Appreciate and criticize, but do a lot more of the former than the latter

It’s human nature for people to be negative, because it is ALWAYS easier to point out what is wrong than to spend time thinking about what is right. I learned this a few years ago when I was a brand new newspaper editor and struggling to get my news desk to write front page headlines that would pass muster with the publisher.

What I learned was this: it wasn’t enough to tell them that a headline didn’t work. Just about any idiot could do that. The trick was in being able to give them constructive guidance in how to write something better.

That’s the problem with a simple admonition to “appreciate and criticize,” because it is far too easy for managers revert to human nature and simply be critical while forgetting the appreciation part.

I hate to use hard-and-fast rules of thumb, but in my book, you should appreciate no less than 80 percent of the time. Yes, you should only be critical one time out of five, and if you find yourself doing it more often, you’ll also find yourself with a demoralized and beaten down staff.

3. Learn to listen is a message that should be branded on your brain.

I used to have a boss that didn’t seem to listen. He was so busy trying to make his point, or shooting down your thinking, that he never, ever really took time to truly listen to what I had to say, or how I was saying it.

People want to feel that what they have to say matters, and nothing says “what you are saying doesn’t matter” more clearly than a manager who seems to not listen very well.

Good managers know that they should spend less time talking and more time listening, and the 80/20 rule works here as well. When talking to employees, you should spend 80 percent of the time listening to what they are saying. If you are talking more than 20 percent of the time, well, you probably aren’t hearing them or helping them much, either.

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4. Walking the talk is a tough, but necessary, thing to do.

I don’t know about you, but far too few of the managers I’ve worked for seemed to follow up and do what they said they were going to do.

You know what I am talking about, like the manager who touts an “open door policy” yet is so intimidating that no one in their right mind would ever WANT to enter their office much less have an open and honest discussion.

Silly open door policies are pretty easy to lampoon (as this video does all too well), but they’re a symptom of the inability of many managers to follow through on what they say – walking the talk. The Journal story hit this on the head pretty well: “As a manager, don’t think that you are the one watching the team, the team is watching you. So set an example and follow your own rules.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5Fyfdu_Q_4

5. You’re their boss, not their friend.

Yes, it’s good to be on friendly terms with those who work for you, but really, how can you be their boss AND their friend AND fulfill both roles?

The answer, simply, is you can’t. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be cordial, friendly, and approachable, but it just isn’t easy to be friends with someone you also have to supervise.

Can it be done? Sure, but what happens if you have to sit down your workplace “friend” and have  a difficult, managerial conversation? You will be better served if you foster trust and respect instead of friendship, because it will help make you a better manager in the long run.

Overall, this India RealTime story in The Journal is good, although very basic, advice for the new boss or manager. In other words, it’s a good starting point but as I have found from time in the trenches, it just skims the surface of what you need to know and do.

So, take it for what it is — simple, basic managerial advice. But also understand this: good management can’t be reduced to five bullet points of helpful hints.

That’s something else all too many bosses don’t understand, either. If management was so easy, you’d have a lot more people clamoring to do it.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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10 Comments on “How to be a Good Boss – It’s Just Not as Simple as it Sometimes Looks

  1. This is certainly true. It would be nice if bosses would stick to these guidlines but it's all too often that these things are ignored. I can see the most difficult thing, for a decent person anyway, drawing that line between boss and friend. This is something I see in my own workplace. But in interesting article, Mr. Hollon.

  2. I think the friends issue is there for anybody who has to have difficult discussions within the organisation – I have had to restructure friends although they haven't reported to me. I have suggested to others that as long as you maintain respect in the equation then you hopefully will get through it. I am also pretty up front about the differences between friends and 'HR' conversations so that also allows people to reframe themselves.

  3. The answer is so simple, John. Tell all employees exactly how you would perform the delegated task if you had time to do it yourself. And then burn their face off if they return with something not done to your spec. Isn't that the way the best bosses do it?

  4. Bill — Love the tongue-in-cheek approach. But yes, I didn't even scratch the surface on all the bad stuff that far too many managers do — like micro-managing, or treating employees no better than farm animals. Guys like you and me, who have been around the block a few times, have seen WAY too much of all that.

  5. As an employee in a large insurance company for more than a decade, I have seen effective managers and less qualified ones. Today, with the development of technology, every business is a global issue. I can't agree more to the article when it says that America needs effective managers to compete with India, China, and all other countries who are gaining more economical power.
    The most difficult boss I ever had, or more correctly, the one we all had problem was also known 'uncommunicative, authority figure' who constantly interrupted our conversation at the meeting. With him, our moral was low and we felt we were just numbers doing repetitive tasks. Thankfully, despite the negative atmosphere, our team supported each other amongst us and survived the time.
    When the boss is communicative, we received, not only more needed information and advices from him or her, but also a positive image of the boss and our company, as well. Whenever the boss came around and talk to us, we felt good about what we were doing. Appreciation, constructive criticism, advice and support are all through good communication.
    Five points listed in the article are all well explained. They are possibly basic rules, but sometimes it seems not actually practiced enough.
    I am very happy with my current boss who maintains her open-door system. Our team production is always higher than average.
    Who knows I might be a boss one day? I will keep this article with my resume.
    Sasha Thomas

  6. I definitely agree with the last rule of “You're their boss, not their friend.” I have had a boss that tried to be more of a friend to her employees, instead of doing the job she was hired to do. Not only that, but she ended up dating someone she worked with and made her team suffer. I have supervised employees and I know that there is a fine line between being friends and being concerned professionally and personally with the people you work with.

  7. One point I'd like to make is that while there are basic business standards to how to treat people, and additional keys to supervising which you have pointed out, 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder'. Exceptional good bosses, are just that, exceptions. While everyone strives to be that exception, I do believe that there is the average, good, better, best level of boss and one size does not fit all for how to manage your people. One employee may perceive their boss as being unnecessarily talkative/instructive (over communicative), another may perceive that same boss as a great teacher. Same issue with being supportive of staff (pitching in on tasks can be construed as micro-managing if the employee is overly sensitive). Any thoughts on this?

  8. This reminded me of an awesome post on AVC about the responsibilities of a CEO. They are remarkably simple, and I had never really thought of it in quite this way until I read the post.

    http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2010/09/what-a-ceo-does-continued.html

    The three responsibilities are:

    1.) Setting vision and strategy
    2.) Recruiting and retaining top talent
    3.) Making sure there’s enough cash in the bank

    I think that these three things set the culture and working environment of a company, which makes everything else SO much easier.

  9. Great post and thanks for highlighting the importance of both appreciation and criticism. Both are important, but appreciation more so. Ironically, it's appreciation that is far more neglected as you note.

    Your comments are also validated by Gallup research that found:

    • Managers who focus on employee strengths have 61% engaged employees and 1% actively disengaged

    • Managers who focus on employee weaknesses have 45% engaged employees and 22% actively disengaged

    • Managers who ignore their employees have 2% engaged employees and 40% actively disengaged

    (Research cited here: http://bit.ly/bUmXJ4

  10. Great commentary. I have found that teams become more effective when “the boss” walks the talk. Holding oneself accountable for commitments made has always served me well. I would also add that treating everyone (peer, employee, boss) with respect also makes you a good boss.

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