Having a great boss should be a desirable feature of an organization’s leadership culture. Yet despite earnest attempts in training and development, we have a long way to go. Gallup reports that one in two U.S. adults have left their job to get away from their manager and improve their overall life at some point in their career. But there is more. So many of the formidable human capital challenges facing companies today are those in which the manager plays an integral role:
• As a result of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, record numbers of people are leaving their jobs in search of better ways to work and live. Contributing to the Great Resignation are unreasonable manager practices that lead to inordinate workloads and employee burnout.
• Gallup Engagement Survey results for 2021 show that 15% of U.S. employees are actively disengaged. They report “miserable” work experiences and poor management.
• Cries for inclusion, equity and belonging continue to increase with dramatic intensity.
Perhaps the simplest and best response to the common thread among these issues is to re-focus attention on the relationship between a boss and direct reports—not just in the belly of the organization, but at every level.
‘Best Boss’ Behavior
A Best Boss focuses on the what, how and why of interacting with direct reports in ways that matter—both to the relationship itself and to the needs of the business. Research shows five key, intersecting areas.
1. Leads from a Higher Purpose
In balance with a focus on the business and self-interest, a Best Boss prioritizes and holds the best interests of direct reports at heart—in a way that is authentically felt by the other. An evolving trust and mutual respect become the overriding foundation for all conduct because the employee senses the value the boss places on the interpersonal relationship. Employees might describe a Best Boss in this way (quotes and illustrations from my research):
“He gave me the confidence I needed to make a huge career change. He also supported me instead of maximizing his self-interests (by keeping me there).”
Some leaders are quite overt with this leadership philosophy. Other leaders may never explicitly articulate a higher purpose (or have reflected on this personally). Yet, their behaviors clearly convey the notion.
“He just took that extra step…a personal step, a human step and always in a most genuine way.”
Illustration: Sue, an internal change management consultant, will never forget her first business trip with her new boss. He unexpectedly and boldly seated himself next to her on the plane and announced, “Sue I like to know the people I work with. Tell me about yourself, your family, where you come from and anything else!” They spent the next two hours getting to know each other. Instantly, she was convinced of his authenticity.
2. Activates Potential
A Best Boss observes, values and puts to use the knowledge, skill and experience of an employee. The boss also understands there is additional potential inherent in an employee and seeks to provide opportunities to cultivate it in the context of both employee interest and business need.
“[My boss]…would often defer to or ask my opinion in front of his very important customers. This was a gesture of explicit trust and belief in what I could bring to the table…”
“He would do all sorts of things to get me out of my comfort zone—push me, even sometimes provoke me. He saw the potential but also saw that I was holding something back…”
Illustration: New to the chemical division but not to the corporation, Dan was a business analyst looking for ways to expand his influence in the organization. He decided to introduce himself to the president of his new division. The president was so impressed with Dan’s views, he invited him to a corporate operating committee meeting to “listen in.” When the division president surprised Dan by asking for his opinion unexpectedly, Dan felt highly energized.
3. Promotes Dynamic Autonomy
A Best Boss conveys vital information on an ongoing basis to otherwise autonomous direct reports so they can perform optimally. These bosses impart the “big picture” surrounding the organization from both a strategic and external perspective (e.g., competitive landscape). They also provide clear expectations and describe line of sight so employees understand the connection between their goals and those of the organization.
“She helped me understand the bigger picture of the business and how that connected to my goals. Then she allowed me the freedom to act and think, giving me a ‘white piece of paper’ to do my job.”
Illustration: Sweta was a senior economic advisor in the financial services industry. She recalls a Best Boss who had the uncanny ability to summarize a major corporate challenge on one piece of paper and then explain it. Working for him helped her see the corporate world through the eyes of the CEO. He taught Sweta to apply principle and mission assessment before performing analytics.
4. Provides Pervasive Feedback
The Best Boss doesn’t miss an opportunity to provide constructive and reinforcing feedback to a direct report. With trust as the backdrop, feedback flows freely. A great boss realizes there is no successful system that operates without ongoing, multifaced feedback.
“He regularly complimented my work and that of those around me, and he gave constructive criticism artfully—meaning that I never felt corrected, just redirected!”
Illustration: Paul was a gifted IT professional working in a manufacturing organization. A talent review revealed the waning support managers had for Paul due to his lacking interpersonal skills—others did not want to work with him. Paul was given a new boss who was willing to address this developmental challenge. The skill of the new boss in providing multifaceted and ongoing feedback proved instrumental in shaping Paul’s interpersonal skills; that in turn enhanced both his value to the company as well as his career options.
5. Inspires Continuous Learning
The Best Boss sets up a culture of continuous learning by sharing an open philosophy regarding mistakes. That is, employees are encouraged to discuss mistakes when they occur. Together, they mine lessons learned from the situation. Finally, all relevant learning is applied going forward. This practice fuels employee confidence and instills learning agility.
“He told me when I started the job that I was going to make mistakes but as long as I kept him informed, he could work it out…”
The Best Boss approach to mistakes increases the employee’s propensity for taking calculated risks over time. This comes as a result of being freed from the fear of failure, as well as having increased opportunities to learn from experience, buoyed by the boss’ ongoing feedback.
“Empowered, I felt like I could take risks and push myself. I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes. I could work outside the box…”
Illustration: Rose was a creative marketer who took a role as a senior campaign manager in the dental industry. Rose’s boss knew that, as she came from a less regulated industry, her innovative ideas would be met with resistance due to the company’s strict and sometimes outdated standards and practices. Rose’s boss advised her, “Don’t let resistance stifle you—if a campaign fails, we will make a point to learn from it and steal those aspects we can use going forward.”
Best Bosses matter, particularly in today’s world—those working for a good manager report high levels of engagement and performance. Often, they bring the practices of their Best Boss to those they in turn will lead. Now is the time for Best Boss leadership—it is the path of maximum return for balance, harmony and growth of people and their organizations.