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

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May 29, 2015
This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.

Editor’s Note: Readers sometimes ask about past TLNT articles, so every Friday we republish a Classic TLNT post.

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 while reading The Wall Street Journal’s India RealTime blog post that was titled, appropriately enough, How to be a Good Boss.

OK, 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.

Are these 5 good tips to be a good manager?

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:

  1. Give coherent communication;
  2. Appreciate and criticize;
  3. Learn to listen;
  4. Walk the talk; and,
  5. 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.

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.”

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.

This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.