Being a Great Boss: Innate Ability or Teachable Skill?

If you’ve been in the workforce long enough, you’ve probably experienced both good and bad bosses.

An article in USA Today last week by Michael Hoon brought to mind the internal debate I’ve had with myself on what makes a good and bad boss, and whether I should feel sorry for bad bosses because they can’t help themselves. Maybe it’s like singing—some people can hold a tune, and other people make you want to put your hands over your ears.

Coincidentally, bad bosses also can make you want to hold your hands over your ears, but unlike bad singers, there’s a possibility they’re not a lost cause. The piece by Hoon notes “eight things a great boss does.” That might give us insight into what a good boss should be doing, and then it’s up to us to decide whether those things are teachable, or whether some people can do them, and others just can’t.

“Gives recognition and feedback” is the first thing Hoon says a good boss should do. Most companies have an annual review process in place, but is that enough? Some people, by nature, are better communicators, and know how to communicate tactfully. They, by nature, would never think of waiting to fill out a form once a year to tell employees how appreciated they are, and how helpful their weekly market reports or new product ideas are, or how much they need to improve in an area that’s causing the rest of the team difficulty. And they would be able to communicate those messages in a way that brings it home to the employee. For instance, in communicating appreciation, the effective boss, wouldn’t just say: “You know, I really appreciate what you do.” She might say: “I really appreciate the report you did last week about the growth in our sector. I was able to use it in my meeting with executives last week, and I think it made a difference in helping them understand the budget requests I submitted.”

And in communicating the need for improvement, the good boss wouldn’t just point out deficits: “That was an important account that was disappointed in us.” The good boss might say: “I know you worked on the account, and I appreciate what you did, but I also wanted to point out a few areas for needed improvement. I think, in particular, we should work together to make the process faster and easier for our customers, so they don’t feel like we’re giving them the runaround, sending them to multiple people to get a simple request taken care of.”

Hoon says a good boss also “helps you market yourself.” That one is even harder than the ability to deliver feedback. Providing feedback can be guided by an annual performance review process (even though that, alone, isn’t enough), but helping employees market themselves requires a boss with a generous nature. You have to want your employees to succeed, and be noticed for their success. If we’re honest with ourselves, we all probably know of managers who don’t always want to help elevate a person working under them. A company can create a culture that rewards managers with employees who become noted successes, but the desire to help another person—that generosity of spirit—has to come from within manager. Other points by Hoon fall into that same category of needing to originate from within the manager, rather than from an external mandate, including having a boss who “empowers you to do great things,” “encourages your personal growth,” “gives credit where credit is due,” and “creates a welcoming office culture.” Executives can set an example by rewarding managers who do those things, but an insecure, stingy-hearted boss isn’t going to be able to do any of it.

On the other hand, it is possible to teach a boss to “run efficient meetings,” for example. You can train managers on best practices in organizing and presenting meetings, such as having each participant do an assignment to deliver at the meeting, and to have each person around the table take a time-limited turn speaking. Or the best practice of limiting meetings in size to only those who truly need to be there (meaning those who will have tasks assigned to them), and giving each participant an action to take upon leaving.

“Standing up for work-life balance” is partially teachable. A company can set a policy that encourages managers to give employees flexibility in meeting the demands of their personal life. You could set a policy that gives employees the right to work out a schedule with their boss to suit their needs, and also give them the right to ask the department head or Human Resources for an override of the boss’ decision if the boss is too rigid in work schedule demands. That would be an alternative to giving the boss the final say on when and where an employee works.

As too many of us have experienced, not all employees who get promoted to leadership positions are worthy of those positions. You can’t train those employees to be ideal bosses, but you can keep a close watch, and remove them as managers when they are causing employees distress. And you can act as a guide, helping them improve where they can, and limiting the damage where they can’t.

What skills do you think managers can be taught? What can’t they be taught?

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