It’s pretty hard, says Bernie Erven, to find someone who says, “I’ve got good employees, but they’ve got a lousy boss.” More often, says the Ohio State University professor emeritus in employee and labor management, he hears this complaint: “I don’t have any problems. It’s my employees.”
The reality, he says, is “You will be about as good a boss as you choose to be.” Your reputation as a boss, and how that reputation influences your relationship with your employees and fellow managers, is the sum of the choices you have made and continue to make.
“Being a better boss is about you and your standards and your choices. It’s not about natural ability.”
It is, however, all about being willing to change, he adds, because becoming a better boss is no different than becoming better at anything else: You have to work at it and you have to be willing to learn how to do it differently if what you’re doing now isn’t working to your satisfaction.
“That’s at the heart of being a better boss,” he says. “Can you be a good boss for the next 10 years if you refuse to change? You’ll still be on your employees’ bad list. Or you won’t have any employees at all.”
Here are 10 areas where supervisors can make choices to help their bottom line:
- Welcome change. “Accept the fact that change is difficult. And so, if you’re going to be a leader, what does your own attitude about change have to be? Positive”. Say you want to introduce a new procedure. If you want your employees to change, you’ve got to give them information about the what, the why and the when. “Some of your very best employees might resist change because they aren’t yet persuaded that the change is reasonable, is justifiable, and is worth the risk”. That means employees need the information, but also some time to work it through. They need to be able to ask questions. “So if you’re going to welcome change and lead change and help people change over time as part of being a good boss, you’ve got to allow time. It can’t be done in a crisis.”
- Emphasize communication. Supervising employees is about building relationships, Erven says, and you can’t relate if you can’t communicate. “The most important single skill that can be learned, practiced, improved and evaluated is communication. You’ve got to make communication your key to building relationships”. The two most important places bosses can improve are in how they send messages and their ability to listen. Some people are readers; some aren’t. “So you’ve got to know the people you’re communicating with.”
- Have clearly understood procedures, policies and rules. “Is it fair to hire someone, not tell them what the job is, and then criticize them for not doing it well? Absolutely not,” Erven says. “Whatever the critical tasks are, teach the procedures. Leaving employees to figure out how to do what they’ve been hired to do is a sign of poor leadership. Make procedures understandable, practical and simple. Have clear policies and rules to guide and explain the whys.”
- Show enthusiasm. “How many of you had a high school coach who announced, ‘We’re going to lose all our games, but let’s practice anyway’? I’m absolutely convinced that enthusiasm is an invaluable personal characteristic for bosses,” Erven says. “I’m talking about having an interest in your job and I’m talking about if sometimes you have to pretend to be enthusiastic until your bad mood passes, do it. Your employees don’t want to know your problems. They want you to be enthusiastic.”
- Be fair. Consistently enforce rules, Erven says, and in all cases avoid bias, dishonesty and injustice. Doing this means you will be accused of being unreasonable at times, because you will make decisions based on careful reasoning, whereas employees often make decisions based on emotion. It’s also wise to separate your personal world from your employee-boss world. “Be friendly with all the people you supervise, but be buddy to none of them,” Erven says.
- Show empathy. Just because you have to make decisions based on clearly defined policies and procedures doesn’t mean you shouldn’t empathize with your employees. Empathy, Erven says, is understanding the other person’s situation. For example, two people are vying for a promotion and you choose Kendra over Kirk. “Who should get the news first? Kirk. Give him the chance to save face with everybody else by giving him the information first, rather than by learning it from Kendra coming away from your talk with a big smile on her face. That’s showing empathy.”
- Display trust. “Believe in your employee’s word, their integrity, their strengths, their assurance,” he says. “In other words, be in a position where you can trust the people around you. To have to say to an employee ‘I don’t trust you’ is a damaging relationship.”
- Continue learning. You will never know all you need to know, he says, and there isn’t a supervisor out there who is ready to manage a 2012 business. Many bosses have been supervising people for longer than some of their employees have been alive. “And you don’t understand them.” But they’re your workforce and you’ve got to continue learning to be an effective boss.
- Be flexible. “Adjust your leadership style for each person you supervise,” he suggests. “Delegate as much authority and responsibility as you can. That’s part of being flexible.”
- Envision the success you’re working to have. What is your vision for your people? What is your vision for your relationship with them? Having that clearly in mind will make it an easier goal to accomplish.
Erven suggests supervisors honestly grade themselves on each of these 10 points. “Then ask one of your employees to ask the same thing of everybody you supervise, anonymously. Ask a trusted co-manager or supervisor to give you a grade on each of them.”
Then look at the results. “If you gave yourself an A on communication and everybody else gave you a C, what’s that telling you?”
Finally, develop a plan for improving your performance on these 10 items. “What will increase your chances of success? Having specific, measurable goals. And what will also increase your success is a coach, mentor, someone around you who helps you be honest with yourself and see the choices.”
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