What are you good at? Perhaps it’s winning business. Your forte may be creative thinking. Or it might be simply working hard to keep your company going. But few business owners are as willing to list their weaknesses. And rare is the person who’ll admit they’re a bad boss.
Being a good leader doesn’t necessarily come naturally. Someone running a business starts out with an idea, perhaps a bit of professional expertise, and lots of drive. But when an SME starts to grow and hire people very different skills come into play – the ability to inspire and motivate workers; developing talent, and; being prepared to deliver bad news or deal with disciplinary issues. This softer side of business ownership really does matter both in terms of staff retention, productivity, and how your company is regarded externally.
It seems that many managers have no idea how their employees regard them. Eight out of ten would say that the people working for them think they’re a great boss, according to a study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). In fact, only 58 per cent of staff agree.
You might think that you’re an inspiring Richard Branson figure in the workplace, but it’s quite possible you’re more of a toe-curling David Brent. How can you tell? What is a good boss?
The ingredients of good leadership
There are some key traits that are commonly held to define effective management. Research from Manchester Business School asked employers and employees what qualities they believed were evident in a great boss. These included:
- Good communication.
Some obvious management blunders also came to light. Bosses being dishonest or untrustworthy, those who are patronising or indecisive, and bullies who seek to instil fear in staff are all clear examples of how not to behave, according to the Manchester study. But if you’re currently lacking in some areas, how can you teach yourself to be a better leader?
How to build a good boss
Julian Birkinshaw, a management expert at London Business School, has written extensively about being a better boss. The professor has singled out some aspects that senior people in a business should focus on to improve as leaders.
- Autonomy. Workers at all levels of a business like to feel that they have some control over their job and working environment. Birkinshaw calls this ‘letting go’, managers sharing information freely with staff, while also allowing them to make decisions – and mistakes. This can involve giving more power to juniors, such as passing on responsibility for specific activities that have previously been the boss’ domain.
- Praise. Giving credit for a job well done is hugely important for staff morale. One way to encourage this is to package work into tangible projects so that people can see the task at hand, tackle it, then be clearly acknowledged for what they’ve done. Birkinshaw points out that some bosses are particularly bad at admitting their own failures, which can make them poor at praising others’ achievements. Having an external work mentor, even if it’s a friend, who you allow to critique your actions may help counter this.
- Self-control. The idea is to prevent emotion and ego getting in the way when dealing with staff. It’s possible that someone working for you may make a better call on handling a task, which requires humility on the part of the manager. Remind yourself of your limitations so that instinct and defensive knee-jerk reactions don’t creep in to your management style.
What you think you do – versus the reality
There will be some people reading this who’ll say that they do many of these things already. But never underestimate your capacity for self-delusion. As we’ve discussed, bosses can be prone to think better of their management skills than is the case in reality. The CIPD found that:
- Six out of ten managers say they talk to each person they manage about their workload and other work issues at least twice a month on average. Asked the same question, only a quarter of employees think their boss engages with them as often.
- More than 90 per cent of managers say that coaching staff forms a part of their regular chats. Only 40 per cent of staff agree.
- Three out of four bosses maintain that they discuss career progression and professional development with workers on a frequent basis. Just 38 per cent of members of staff say this happens.
- Those in senior positions also often tend to overestimate how much they joint problem-solve with staff, or how frequently they consult employees about new ideas and improving work practices. They may also be felt to be unconcerned about workers’ personal wellbeing – while personally believing they’re a caring, sharing boss.
The poor excuses for bad management
Birkinshawargues that most bosses secretly know that they should improve their management skills, but they lack the self-control to change their ways. Many owners of SMEs will also say they haven’t time to tackle such non-essential issues. Except they are essential when a business is losing staff or not working productively. Others may automatically decide that if things are going wrong in the firm, staff are probably to blame and the onus is on them to change their behaviour. Unwavering self-belief can be a strength in a business owner when it comes to making decisions. However, it becomes a weakness when someone lacks self-awareness, and can’t admit when they’re the one in the wrong.
Desire for control is understandable in someone who’s built up a company from scratch, but if that enterprise is to grow then the boss needs to fight these natural instincts. The business owner needs to learn to change and develop with their organisation and its people. And it’s important to recognise that you can’t do everything alone. Developing a good, strong, independent-minded team that has the freedom and ability to question your actions is one sure sign that you really are a great boss after all.
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