As a management professor, I am sometimes guilty of getting caught up in academic theories and big-picture issues of management (such as how organizations compete with each other or decide what products/services they will provide) as I prep for my courses.
But, perhaps even more importantly to students of management is to consider “what makes a good boss?” After all, every manager is a “boss,” and I don’t mean that term in a negative way. Individuals report to this person on an organizational chart so that she or he can help coordinate effort in order that an organization can achieve its goals. As such, being a “boss” is one of the most crucial activities in which managers need to be effective.
Many of us have had very bad bosses and very good bosses. Reflecting on my career, I’ve had both – I’m lucky that my current boss, Dean Gary Quinlivan, is the best that I’ve had.
As I prepped for my classes this fall, I tried to keep the “effective manager/boss” question in my mind so I could encourage my students to reflect on what would make them most effective as they eventually grow into leadership roles. Yes, managers make big-picture strategic decisions, but the most crucial role of a manager is to effectively engage others in the organization.
When I consider what I think makes a great manager/boss, I think the following items are important (and I would suspect that other organizational behavior experts would agree):
- Set expectations but allow for some flexibility. Effective managers are charged with guiding the efforts of a group to contribute to common goals. As such, managers must make expectations clear on what tasks each person whom they supervise is responsible for. They need to provide guidance to their employees on what they need to accomplish but they also need to strike a balance. Managers must provide direction while also allowing employees the leverage to do their jobs in manners that best emphasize their skills, knowledge and personalities. Furthermore, managers must also create a culture where employees can innovate and improve upon how they do their job and add greater value to their organizations. Thus, managers need to be strict in adherence to guiding employees’ efforts toward goals but open, flexible and willing to consider employees’ ideas on how to accomplish them.
- Learn about individuals. The best bosses know who their employees are. While maintaining a professional relationship (bosses are likely not effective when they try to act like their employees’ best buddy), effective managers should try to understand what each individual is motivated by and what he or she cares about. They should understand what drives them. Knowing a little bit about their family, hobbies and personal values might also be useful as long as employees don’t perceive this as intrusive. And, of course, this needs to be done not at a superficial level. I’ve seen managers who memorize all of their employees’ birthdays and children’s names without really caring for who each person is as an individual. This is not enough. Managers need to be able to create an interpersonal rapport with their employees to effectively motivate them, build trust and develop a high-functioning team. Of course, this becomes more and more difficult as the number of employees that a manager is responsible for increases.
- Provide opportunities and encourage systems thinking. Managers need to provide opportunities for employees, not just in the manner of promotions and salary increases, but also through education and development. Part of their development, as suggested by Senge (2006), is to encourage systems thinking. In other words, develop employees to see how people, processes, ideas and goals are interrelated within (and outside of) their organization. By encouraging this, managers are, in essence, encouraging life-long learning because, with a systems-thinking mindset, employees will always see new connections that can be made and will strive to achieve always greater understanding. This also helps them to see a bigger picture of the totality of their organization and potentially how it’s linked to society, thus preparing them to take on leadership roles later in their careers.
- Be an effective communicator. The above ideas are not feasible unless a manager is good at communicating. This isn’t just about transmitting a message – as Fairhurst (2010) suggests, managers are most effective when they can frame a message regarding language use, tone, message format and communication style in a way that resonates with the group in which they seek to interact.
- Develop and maintain integrity. My daughter loves the Dr. Seuss book “Horton Hatches the Egg” (1968). In it, the main protagonist (Horton) repeats the line over and over “I meant what I said and I said what I meant…” when referring to his obligation to watch over an egg. In essence, this relates to being a manager in three ways. First, to build integrity and trust, managers need to always say what they mean and mean what they say. Second, they must operate out of an appropriate moral framework. Horton seems to be very Kantian in his approach because of his emphasis of fulfilling his duty even though doing so might cause personal hardship. Third, managers have a responsibility to care for others in their organization in a manner that is ethical, just like Horton cared for the egg.
What traits or behaviors did your most effective boss possess? Are they similar to the ones I suggest above? What were your experiences like with your worst boss (no names please!)? Always excited to hear from you! Email me at email@example.com, message me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/urickmj/) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-urick-05b775a3/) or leave me a comment here.
Dr. Mike Urick
Fairhurst, G. T. (2010). The power of framing: Creating the language of leadership. John Wiley & Sons.
Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Broadway Business.
Seuss, D. (1968). Horton hatches the egg. Random House.