Opinion

How to be a good boss

No one wants to be a bad boss, but passing company directions down to the workforce may not always make you the most popular person. Annie Gurton gives some pointers on how to please everyone.

It is one of life's bittersweet ironies that despite the human preference to be liked and popular, it goes with the territory of being a manager to be prepared to do unpopular things.

If you are a boss, you will, sooner or later, have to take actions and make decisions that will make you unpopular and a good boss cannot care too much about their personal popularity.

That is not to say that nice people do not become bosses, but even the nicest boss must have a core of steel in there somewhere.

After all, it is up to them to make sure that targets are met, budgets are stuck to and slackers brought to heel. They have the power to hire and fire, and most do both with compassion and tact. Unfortunately, many learn to be a good boss through trial, error and experience: when promotions are made, training rarely comes with the job.

However nice a boss is, the team knows that if the crunch comes, when push comes to shove and at the end of the day, the boss has the power to make their lives hell or sack them.

This reality invariably leads to a certain amount of two-facedness. If you want to see what people think of bad bosses - and identify some traits to avoid - go no further than myboss.com.

It is a testament to crass management, incompetence and stupidity, where abused and oppressed workers gather in anonymity to gain solace in numbers and some satisfaction in publicising the behaviour of their own bad bosses. This is where workers get really honest about their bad bosses.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, all good bosses resemble one another but each bad boss is bad in his or her own way. A good manager can be respected as a boss and disliked as a person, but a bad boss is rarely liked as an individual.

Descriptions of bad bosses often focus on their physical or personal shortcomings and, as at myboss.com, are described as lazy, cheating, rude and lying. Often, personal adjectives like fat, old, disgusting, offensive or smelly are used, and worse. Criticisms are rarely specific about the short-comings of a bad boss' management style, and when they are, the most frequent is incompetent.

The requirements of a good boss are more subtle than the characteristics of a bad one. The profile of a good boss frequently describes someone who is prepared to put their own job on the line for the team. Accepting that the buck stops with you and protecting the team from unreasonable pressure enhances the boss' standing and respect.

In these days when there is little collective action or the protection of unions against unfair demands for high productivity and low salaries, it comes down to the line boss or senior departmental manager to set the parameters.

If the employees feel that their boss is more concerned with his or her standing with those above him, and squeezing the most productivity for the lowest salary budget possible, than ensuring the satisfaction and happiness of the team, then alienation and discontent is guaranteed.

These skills are better described as leadership rather than management, explains Jonathan Wagstaffe, managing director of IT consultancy Connectology. "The role of the boss is to create an atmosphere and environment in which the team can achieve and excel. It often means being ruthless at the point of recruitment, but the key is to select the right people and then give them all your confidence."

You might have to defend them against outside criticism, Wagstaffe adds, but that helps cement team loyalty and commitment.

Giving individuals encouragement to develop is always important, and this means ultimately not being too concerned if they leave to further their career. Although team stability is key, some attrition and new blood is also healthy. The good boss will be concerned about building individuals' careers and confidence, and sometimes this means that they reach the point when they need to look outside the team.

A good boss will allow them to go without recriminations or making them feel guilty. With luck, they will return. Paradoxically, teams where individuals feel that their career is important to their boss will often have higher retention rates.

Paul Cook, founder of e-commerce strategy consultancy RedEye International, says it is easier to be a popular boss in a small start-up firm. "In companies that are young, innovative and staffed by pro-active self-starters, one can have an unconventional, non-hierarchical approach.

"Discipline is not normally necessary and people are self-motivated. I find that I only have to interfere rarely, and by leaving individuals to take on as much responsibility as they want, they will work hard."

Cook has set up an alternative management approach, which relies on internal electronic task management software written by himself. The software enables team members to prioritise and allocate tasks to each other.

"Responsibilities are carried out to a high standard and on time, which makes traditional line management structures a thing of the past," Cook says.

Chris Gill, vice-president for Western Europe at Oki Systems, says there are six vital elements to being a good boss. He says, "The environment and culture have to be right, and that includes the office style, overall package of remuneration, and structure for meetings."

Some believe that this is achieved with a fun approach. For example, Caraline Brown of Brighton-based IT PR outfit Midnight Communications was put forward by her staff as an example of a good boss because she and her staff dressed up in black leather for a "We whip you a merry Christmas" photo, with Brown centre-stage.

She also took the whole company away to Berlin for a weekend and sent a pre-paid list to buskers outside the office windows to play employees' favourite tunes for an afternoon.

"Fun," says Brown, "is essential for fostering team spirit. In that atmosphere, and with judicious original selection of staff, reprimands and discipline are rarely required."

According to Gill, although fun is important there also needs to be realistic guidelines. "The work ethic and attitude towards diligence is set by the boss, along with expectations on timekeeping and quality of work."

He adds that the ability to raise questions or make mistakes without being blamed is crucial. "A culture that prevents staff from raising problems through fear of reprisal will suffer from unresolved problems that fester and get worse or even critical before they are recognised," he says.

"Next," says Gill, "the boss has to create a vision and direction. The boss dictates where the team is going, how it is going to get to its agreed target and what individual contribution is required."

He relates the story of President Kennedy visiting Cape Canaveral and asking a janitor in the lavatory what his job was, and the janitor replied, "putting a man on the moon".

"Everyone should share the vision and understand why and how to contribute," says Gill. "It is also vital to guard against standing still and slipping into the attitude of the contented status quo. To stand still is to drop behind, so a good boss must ensure that the team sees change as positive and unthreatening," explains Gill.

"The good boss will also be an enabler," says Gill, "ensuring that everyone in the team can contribute positively and is enabled to do so, and all talent and enthusiasm is harnessed. Encouragement for people to stretch themselves creates stronger loyalty and commitment and produces far better results than a controlling environment."

He accepts that errors will be made, but because of the no-blame culture these are dealt with and not suppressed. "Only if there is a repeated and damaging problem should disciplinary or corrective action be taken."

Motivation is a critical ingredient in a creative and productive team working happily together. Highly motivated teams push themselves to over-achieve, even accomplishing more than brighter or more technically competent peers.

Gill believes that a motivated and happy culture is one where things can be made to happen and this is best done through a nibbling approach rather than a big bang. "It is easier to take lots of small steps that are readily understandable and more easily achievable and can make quicker progress than a quantum leap. It is also easier and quicker to change direction when circumstances change if you are making small changes all the time."

Staff can be encouraged and motivated with individual targets that are set every six months, and embrace changes and make continual adjustments to the team's objectives and individuals' performances.

Gill concludes, "The bottom line is always financial targets, but these are only the result of the way that business is done. Therefore, it is vital to concentrate on how business is run and the results will look after themselves.

"Only a fool would expect better results without changing how the result is achieved."

How to be a good boss

  • Create variety and allow new skills to be developed

  • Allow individuals to identify with the whole project and own their part of it

  • Ensure that everyone knows that their contribution is valued

  • Wherever possible, give freedom and independence along with responsibilities

  • Set regular subjective and objective evaluations, reviews and opportunities for two-way feedback

  • Establish mutual expectations from the start

  • Accept blame - know that the buck stops with you

  • Don't take people for granted - thank and praise them

  • Judge on merit - identify and ignore any baggage

  • Monitor working relationships when they are working well

  • Manage in context - try to see all sides

  • Mix and mingle - don't manage from the isolation of your office

  • Identify opportunities on behalf of your staff

  • Exploit strengths not weaknesses

  • Know the expectations of your own performance

  • Acknowledge people's feelings

  • Discover the facts through pro-active listening

  • Listen before and after you talk

  • Make things happen, don't hold things back

  • Aim to make yourself redundant

  • Stay calm and keep smiling - it's only work

    Ways to make the relationship with your boss work

  • Show commitment and loyalty, even if you are job hunting

  • Encourage the boss to think there is strong team bonding with a healthy team spirit

  • Be prepared to share your personal job achievements with your boss

  • In meetings, let your boss think he/she came up with all the good ideas

  • Remember your boss has a boss too - show sympathy for their divided loyalties

  • Tell the boss immediately when there is a problem - it keeps you in the right, and bosses like to know what's going on

  • Don't be too eager to please, but always be around when the boss needs you

  • Make sure the boss is invited to all informal social events. Don't let them feel excluded or alienated - you'll pay for it at work

  • Learn how your boss wants the office to look: tidy, busy, organised, casual but efficient. There are many styles - make sure you know what's wanted

  • Never criticise your boss behind his/her back - it will always get back to them

  • Never criticise your boss to his/her face - they'll think you think you can do their job better (even if you could)

  • Make sure they know that you have alternative job offers with more money - but that you are loyal and committed to the team.

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    This was first published in July 2000

     

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