5 Hard Lessons I’ve Learned About Being a Better Manager and Boss

John Hollon Business Development, Career Paths, Coaching, Communication, Culture, Employee Coaching, Employee Communications, Employee Development, Employee Engagement, Employee Relations, Engagement and Satisfaction, Leadership, Learning and Development, Performance, Recognition

I’m a sucker for anything that tries to answer a question that I almost never hear anyone ask, much less answer: How can you be a good boss?

Notice that I say anything that “tries” to answer because I usually find that most advice on how to better manage people usually goes one of two ways — it’s either very simplistic or incredibly stupid.

A few years back, there was a Wall Street Journal blog post titled How to Be a Good Boss that did a pretty decent job of answering that question, but it also missed some things that I believe are essential when it comes to directing and managing people the right way.

It’s a struggle to learn how to really manage

Full disclosure here: I’ve supervised people and been a boss for longer than I care to admit. I’ve learned about how to manage the hard way – through real life, on-the-job, thrown-into-the-breech experience. It was something that was tough at first, and I struggled to learn how to be a boss and a manager, and how to do it right.

But I’ve also seen a great many managers do it terribly wrong. I’ve worked for way too many bad managers and some pretty dreadful bosses. That’s what made me so interested in what the How to Be a Good Boss blog post had to say.

The author 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.

You should read the blog post for more details, of course, but this is a surprisingly good list. However, I would add a few caveats to these management and leadership tips from my own experience:

1. There’s no such thing as over-communication

Most employees are desperate for more communication. No matter how much the manager thinks they may be communicating, employees always seem to want more — a LOT more — and they want it in any and every possible manner, from one-on-one to team meetings, to emails, memos, or any other way imaginable.

There’s a simple reason why managers should want to communicate more. It’s because workers who feel they’re in the loop and know what is going on are more engaged, which means they probably do better work. Plus, making sure that your employees really know what is happening helps cut down on what happens when you under communicate – a workplace full of rampant gossip and speculation. The more that happens, the less focused your employees are on the job at hand.

Many managers, however, are terrible communicators. In fact, I’ve found that the higher someone rises in an organization, the worse their communication skills seem to get. And it seems to be something that many high-paid executive coaches that high-ranking managers hire seem to completely miss.

My approach is simple: It’s impossible to over communicate. No matter how much you are communicating now, you would do well to at least double or triple it, and, to make sure that you communicate your message 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. You need a 5-1 employee appreciation ratio

It’s human nature for people to be negative because it’s ALWAYS easier to focus on what is wrong than what is right. I learned this years ago when I was a rookie newspaper editor and struggling to get my news editors to write Page One headlines that would pass muster with the publisher.

Here’s what I learned: It’s not enough to tell them that a headline didn’t work. Just about anybody could do that. The real trick was being able to give them constructive guidance on how to write something better.

That’s the problem with a simple admonition to “appreciate and criticize,” because it’s way too easy for managers to simply be critical while forgetting the appreciation part.

I hate to lay down hard-and-fast rules, but in my book, you should appreciate employees no less than 80 percent of the time. Yes, you should be critical only one time out of five, and if you find yourself criticizing more than that, you’ll find yourself with a demoralized workforce.

3. “Learn to listen” should be branded on your brain

I once had a boss that never seemed to listen. He was so busy trying to make his point, or shooting down yours, that he never really took the time to truly listen to what I had to say.

Most people want to feel that what they say matters, and nothing says “what you are saying doesn’t matter” more clearly than a manager who doesn’t seem to listen.

The best managers know that they should spend a lot less time talking and a lot more listening, and the 80/20 rule applies here as well. When talking to employees, you should spend at least 80 percent of the time listening to what they’re saying. If you are talking more than 20 percent of the time, you probably aren’t hearing them or helping them very much.

4. Walking the talk is a tough

Far too few of the managers I’ve worked for seemed to ever follow up and do what they said they were going to do, 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 honest discussion.

Mindless open door policies are pretty easy to lampoon (and check out the video below titled Land of the Knuckleheads: Open (Closed) Door Policies), but they’re a symptom of the inability of many managers to follow through on what they say – also known as “walking the talk.”

The WSJ blog hit this on the head pretty well, noting: “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 are their boss … not their friend.

It’s good to be friendly with those who work for you, but really, how can you be their boss AND their friend AND carry out both roles?

The answer is pretty simple: You can’t.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be friendly and approachable with your employees — in fact, that’s what kind of management style you should be shooting for — but it 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 tough conversation? You’ll be better served if you foster trust and respect instead of friendship because, in the long run, it will help make you a better manager overall.

Here’s my take: The WSJ blog post on How to Be a Good Boss is good advice. It’s solid, but pretty basic, advice for the newbie boss or manager. It’s a good starting point but just skims the surface of what new managers need to know.

Here’s something you can take to the bank: Management isn’t easy. If it was, you would have a helluva lot more people clamoring to do it.