What makes a Good Boss?

I am writing this on a Sunday, and for most for us that means that tomorrow is a work day. Except for a privileged few, work is something that is a daily reality – one that can either be looked forward to or dreaded. While there are several causes why a person may love or hate his or her work, today’s article will concentrate on the one individual who can pretty much singlehandedly sway things one way or the other: The Boss.

Aside from those who are self-employed, bosses control much of the experience that employees undergo at work on a daily basis. In fact, since we spend so much time at work, it is possible that one’s relationship with his or her boss is the one that involves the most amount of time and interaction – even more so than friends and family.

Before we delve any further into the issue, some statistics from a survey conducted by the JobsCentral Group:

  1. 69% of Singaporean workers are satisfied with their bosses.
  2. Of the workers which are satisfied, only 28% state that they are dissatisfied with their jobs.
  3. Of the workers which are dissatisfied, 61% state that they are unhappy at work.

These statistics clearly show that the boss wields an extraordinary level of influence in determining the work satisfaction of their subordinates. Having a good boss can make work smooth-sailing, while having a terrible boss can make work a torturous affair.

Now we must consider: What is the role of a Boss? While the push-button answer might be that a Boss is there to give subordinates work, this response does not reveal any angle from which we can start shedding light on what makes a good (or bad) Boss.

If we look at a Boss’s role in the bigger scheme of things, a boss is there to ensure that subordinates are able to deliver the work allocated to them in a certain time-frame, which would allow the organization to carry out its work in an efficient and effective manner.

There are two main methods a Boss is able to get subordinates to do this: Positive and Negative Motivation. Simply put, Positive Motivation works when employees anticipate a reward from the Boss for doing the work on time and to an acceptable standard. In contrast, Negative Motivation is at play when employees anticipate a punishment from the Boss if work is not done in accordance with the Boss’s expectations. Note that in both cases, the reward or punishment can come in tangible and intangible forms (a promotion as opposed to a thank you, and a salary cut as opposed to a scolding).

It is tempting to look at the above methods of motivation outlined above and conclude that Good Bosses only use Positive Motivation, while Bad Bosses utilize only Negative Motivation in order to get what they want. This also presupposes that Positive Motivation, due to its positive nature, is ‘good’, and Negative Motivation is ‘bad’.

This is not true. The reality is that a Good Boss knows how to use both Positive and Negative Motivation to motivate his subordinates. Both are necessary to keep both hardworking employees happy and employees with less-than-desirable work ethics in line.

So then, what does a Bad Boss use, you may ask?

The truth is that a Bad Boss also uses both Positive and Negative Motivation. This represents a conundrum: If both use the same tactics, what is the defining criterion that separates the two?

The answer to this question lies in the underlying intention in the application of these motivational methods. While the Good Boss utilizes the techniques in order to further the interests of the organization as a whole, the Bad Boss utilizes the techniques in order to further his own interests.

Here are some examples of Bad Bosses:

  1. A boss who refuses to hear out subordinates who make suggestions which may lead to a more efficient or effective way of doing things, because he feels that accepting the suggestions would undermine his authority as a boss. The Boss is therefore prioritizing his own personal respect above organizational efficiency.
  2. A boss who employs favorites in the workplace. Some employees are deliberately given more opportunities to advance and succeed than others, simply due to personal preference. The Boss is therefore giving himself a greater level of influence than he should ideally wield, as an objective and neutral assessor of which subordinate is the most deserving to receive a reward. Having such Bosses also promotes cronyism in the workplace.
  3. A boss who stipulates an extremely tight deadline for a subordinate to submit a piece of work, citing the urgency of the matter – but then proceeds to sit on the matter for months before taking action. The Boss is therefore employing double standards in his expectations of his subordinates, and that of himself. Perceived double standards, which also ties to favoritism, can be a great source of employee unhappiness in the workplace.
  4. A boss who regularly promises his subordinates promotions and significant raises in exchange for longer hours and harder work at the office – only to leave them disappointed at the discussion for their performance grades. A boss who issues such deals expects his subordinates to perform up to expectations, but fails to realize that his subordinates also expect him to live up to his end of the bargain.
  5. A boss who believes that drawing a thick line between himself and his subordinates through the use of fear is the best way to keep his subordinates’ work at an acceptable standard. Employees who have been harshly scolded become wary and fearful of submitting work, and exhibit greatly reduced confidence in their personal work competency. This ultimately slows down work productivity as employees are reluctant to have honest and upfront discussions about the work in question with the Boss, fearing another unpleasant episode.

The above few examples clearly illustrate some of the traits Bad Bosses possess – traits that subordinates can clearly see and perceive in their daily interactions. That said, the common thread that can be deduced from the above examples, and which ties most, if not all Bad Bosses together is their inability to empathize with their subordinates.

A Bad Boss who utilizes both Positive and Negative Motivation might be able to make his subordinates do what he wants them to do for a period of time, but he does not realize that such a situation is unsustainable, which is the ultimate test of whether a certain approach or method is worth adopting. He does not realize that subordinates are much more than resource units to be manipulated, cajoled or even coerced into producing work – subordinates are human beings, just like the Boss they work for. A human being has dreams, feelings, ideas, and above all a desire to be appreciated, valued and respected. A Boss who fails to see this will drive valuable talent away from his organization, and mar operational efficiency due to the noxious organizational culture he has allowed to fester in the workplace.

On the other hand, a Good Boss understands that his role is at heart a simple one: To keep his subordinates motivated and happy. This concern is one that the Good Boss weighs against every other pressing concern at work, because he knows that the following cause and effect relationships are true:

  1. If an employee has an approachable Boss, he is more likely to give honest suggestions on how to improve certain work processes, or new ideas that can take the organization forward. He is also more likely to be receptive to constructive criticism and admonishments when they are warranted.
  2. If an employee has a reasonable Boss, he is more likely to want to do his personal best for the Boss. This can arise out of loyalty to a superior who has treated him well, and can lead to all sorts of examples of dedication, including working beyond the stipulated working hours in order to finish important projects – something the Bad Boss can only achieve through fear, threats and coercion.

As mentioned above, a Boss has the ability to determine a subordinate’s job satisfaction to a large extent. The Good Boss understands that the job satisfaction of his subordinates is inextricably tied to overall work productivity, and works tirelessly to ensure that his subordinates feel valued, appreciated and respected. In time, his subordinates will become natural advertisers to new talent outside the organization. Through this, he not only ensures that his organization will be effective and efficient in the present, but also secures a steady supply of new blood and promising talent that will allow his organization to retain a competitive edge well into the future.

Having a competitive edge and keeping operational productivity at a maximum is all well and good, but aside from these tangible benefits, isn’t it simply more becoming of a Boss, or anyone in a superior position to treat his subordinates with proper dignity and respect? I’ll end off this article (and the weekend) with a quote from a well-known novelist:

If you want to see the true measure of a man, watch how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.

J. K. Rowling

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