What is the anatomy of a good boss? Set aside for the moment all of the hats a manager wears and the various tasks they execute – think about the bosses you have had and the way you felt about them. Did you look forward to seeing them at work? Did you feel they were committed to helping you be your best? Did you feel like they were excited about the work you and your team were accomplishing together? How did they do that? To my mind, a good boss is someone who effectively balances business acumen and interpersonal skills, simultaneously leveraging business insights and emotional intelligence to shape others’ experiences and behavior.
Recently we talked about the power of compassion at work and why being nice matters. I speculated that managers and leaders are in a unique position to create a culture of kindness and compassion in the workplace. However, in this post I also argued that we also have to keep the big picture and long-term view in mind. Being “nice” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings and allowing them to continue to underperform isn’t very nice at all. Good bosses are willing to say hard things because they appreciate the big picture and have your long-term wellbeing and that of the organization in mind.
The author of this blog post makes a similar point in discussing what he refers to as the leadership butterfly effect. His point is that relatively small things a leader does can have a ripple effect of considerable magnitude, impacting culture and team effectiveness. Some leaders tend to publicly criticize and avoid praise – ultimately leading to a culture of fear. Other leaders tend to publicly praise and avoid criticism – ultimately leading to a culture of conflict avoidance. Neither of these situations creates a path to sustainable performance. The best thing a leader can do is to encourage a culture of trust and willingness to embrace reality. A good boss readily doles out both praise and criticism but does so with empathy and compassion.
Previously we discussed the role of mirror neurons in facilitating social cohesion. They allow us a glimpse into others’ experiences and serve as the basis for empathy – they also form the foundation of emotional contagion. For better or worse, we have a tendency to “catch” others’ emotions. Further, as emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman points out in this LinkedIn post, “not all emotional partners are equal” and people are more likely to “catch” the emotions demonstrated by those in a more powerful position. I have personally seen this in action time and time again. Negative emotions roll downhill and ultimately create a toxic environment for everyone. This effect is important because our emotions drastically impact the way we do our work. As one example, research shows that teams with leaders in a positive mood were better coordinated and more efficient than those who were led by a leader in a negative mood, and the latter also made poorer strategy decisions. A good boss is positive and even-keeled even in the face of stressful situations.
A good boss helps us continually improve our performance while treating us humanely. I talk a lot about how successful people are adaptive and willing and able to put down one frame and try on another. The best bosses are effective because they offer constructive frames for us to use. They help us to see reality, the big picture, and ourselves more clearly so that we can align our behavior and performance. The best bosses possess a trifecta of perspective, compassion, and emotional maturity. Now doesn’t that sound like someone you would want to work for?