Are You a Good Boss? Two Studies Identify Traits of Top Managers

Worlds Best Boss

Two separate studies were conducted by Google and the Royal Bank of Canada to determine what traits make for a good boss versus average or even bad boss.  Here is what they discovered….

How many great bosses have you had in your career?  For me, two stand out.  One was with a job I hated, the other was with a job I loved.  One was male, the other female.  One was a lot like me, the other not like me at all….except maybe for our sense of humor.  One was stubborn and feared by some in the organization.  The other was the friendliest person you’ve ever met, quick to put others at ease.  So, how is it that I would find these two VERY DIFFERENT people equally great?  Had I changed over time?  There were about ten years between these two bosses after all.  I’ve worked with many great people but what made these two bosses great?  There is no shortage of research on leadership; however two of my favorite studies were performed by Google (2008, then updated in 2018) and Royal Bank of Canada (RBC, 2011-2013) in separate attempts to determine what makes manager good?

What does a good boss look like?

Do you know a good manager when you see one?  Based on the findings of both RBC and Google, not at first glance.  Both studies report good manager traits having little to do with what the manager does, but how and why they do it.  Micro-managing determined highly ineffective by both groups, suggesting a good manager’s day revolves more around strategy and developing or coaching employees; however nearly all other findings relate to how a good manager engages with employees.  Being genuine and showing an interest in both personal and professional well-being for employees rate high on both lists suggesting empathy for others and authenticity are essential in making employees feel valuable.  Today this should be no surprise.  In 2017, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote about the impact loneliness is having on the workplace.  A person with a poor network of friends and family, lacking support needed to push through this epidemic of loneliness in most cases will still need to work, making work perhaps their only opportunity to feel connected.  If true, doesn’t it only make sense employees respond positively to managers that seem invested in the employee’s personal journey?  Look over the list provided here.  How many listed traits do your top managers possess?  More importantly, do you feel your under-performing managers can learn the traits and behaviors necessary to be more effective?  Can a manager learn to be empathetic and genuine?

Google & RBC findings side-by-side
* Trait was either updated or revised in 2018

Why it matters

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, employs more than 107,000 people worldwide.  The company owns more than 88% of search engine market share and is in the race to join the highly exclusive $1 trillion dollar list.  RBC employs 80,000 people, and with 1.28 trillion dollars in assets is the biggest bank in Canada and the 11th biggest bank in the world.  They look for ways to excel, commit to a solution, and go ALL IN.  Google and RBC’s choice to independently research their own management practices that were proving to be effective versus ineffective and build their teams and leaders on these principles is no accident.  This research, although beneficial to many, was not done for humanitarian reasons.  Good managers drive success.  In a study, employees working for a manager identified as average when changed to a manager identified as highly effective, increased productivity by 50%!  Good bosses also have lower employee turnover and themselves also stay with companies longer than bad managers.  It’s important to note, the 2008 Google study was only after Google surveyed their own engineers to determine whether managers were at all necessary within their organization.  It was perhaps this initial project that led them to realize that a good boss is highly valuable whereas a bad boss is actually worse than no boss at all.

I stay in touch with each of my former managers.  I trust that I can call either of them today and they will still take time out of their busy schedules to help me.  I don’t know what their relationships were like with my peers or other leaders within our former organizations although I suspect those relationships were positive.  It was perhaps a year ago that one of them reached out to me in need of a favor.  I stopped everything I was doing and immediately jumped at the chance to help my former boss and friend.  It was no different when I worked for these individuals.  I cared as much about their success as I did my own.  That’s the thing about a great boss – their fingerprints from pushing you forward, catching you when you fall….are EVERYWHERE in your life!  A great boss changes your life,  But because it’s authentic and they genuinely care and love their jobs, it happens so naturally and organically.  Only in hindsight do you look back and wonder….were they working for me or was I working for them?

Managing difficult employees – Can good employees have bad attitudes?

There are two reasons an employee fails to meet reasonable employer expectations – either they can’t or they won’t.  Falling short of expectations is often assessed through the lens of skill or will.  When the employee is trying but lacks the knowledge or experience needed to succeed in his/her role (skill issue), the solution is most commonly solved with training, coaching, better systems or access to resources, or sometimes mentoring.  Managing difficult employees, employees that are not trying however (will issue), is a much bigger challenge.

Behavioral issues are often misdiagnosed as skill/performance issues and therefore often go unresolved.   This is especially unfortunate as these behavioral issues can be incredibly damaging to a company’s culture and success.  Some of the most common workplace behavioral issues are:

  • Excessive absenteeism or tardiness (when not as part of an accommodation)
  • Insubordination
  • Gossip
  • Disruptive to others
  • Poor quality of work
  • Harassing behavior
  • Theft
  • Failure to meet KPIs
  • Emotional outbursts

There are two reasons behavioral issues are more difficult, 1) inexperienced leaders, and 2) employee actor-observer bias.

Experience Matters

Perhaps the hardest lesson learned in managing and leading people is that we all perceive, think about, and value things differently.  It’s easy to say, but when leading a team of conflicting personalities and priorities to achieve a common goal – the leadership can seem overwhelming.  Diagnosing why a person with the desire to succeed isn’t, is a tactical diagnosis.  An employee wants to get more sales, has a great attitude, works hard, and asks for help – it doesn’t take a lot of experience to recognize he needs training.  He’s putting the work in but needs help turning activity into sales.  What about the salesperson that isn’t “working hard”?  She previously hit her quota every month – but her sales have declined steadily over the last few months.  Is she calling out sick all the time?  Is she showing up late?  Leaving early?  When at work – is she working effectively or talking with co-workers and tending more to her social media accounts than customers.  Is she selling to fewer people, closing smaller deals, or both?  She has shown she can do the job, but somewhere along the line stopped.  Why?  This is a harder problem to solve because it requires insight, empathy, and a genuine desire to understand.  Generally, these are leadership qualities developed with experience.  It’s by managing and leading people that you develop the confidence and self-awareness needed to step outside of your own head willing to look at a situation from the perspective of another.  Good people make bad choices all of the time.  Many inexperienced managers assume the person “doesn’t care” or simply “has a bad attitude”.  A leader I worked with in the past would respond to managers complaints about an employee by asking the manager, “was the employee bad when you hired him or did you make him bad?”.  If you want employees to understand the “why” behind your company’s purpose, you need to understand their why as well.  Why do they choose to work hard?  Why do they sometimes choose not to?  You can discipline them, you can warn them, you can suspend them, but nothing serves as a solution to a behavioral problem unless you first understand the why behind it.  Why did they stop caring?  That’s the first step on the path to a solution.  Most employees can regain their love and passion to succeed in their role.  First though – we as leaders NEED to ask what caused it to be lost in the first place.

The actor-observer bias at work

The actor-observer bias is one of several attribution biases, concepts used in social psychology to describe irrational patterns in how we view our own behaviors and interpret behaviors of others.  The term refers to our tendency  to attribute our own behaviors to situational factors while attributing behaviors of others to internal factors.  Put simply, we see our behaviors as a reflection of a situation but perceive others behave a certain way because that’s who they are.  This bias causes behavioral problems to surface in two ways, 1) biased employees see their decisions and behaviors as the only option, rather than a choice, and 2) biased employees subscribe to the idea that only bad people do bad things.  Because someone doesn’t see himself as bad a person, he is incapable of doing bad things and as such, his behaviors are justified.  Think of an employee who is frequently late or absent.  Does she always have a reason?  Does she seem to feel you too should excuse her absence –as though she had no choice but to be late or miss the day?  A person harassing others, although clearly a more serious offense, often does not recognize himself as a harasser.  Because the person doing the harassing believes the person he is harassing either wants or deserves the unwanted attention, he typically feels his behavior is justified.  Ironically, the harasser is often the most offended by harassing behavior demonstrated by others, seeing other harassers as bad people rather than people engaging in harassing behavior (2 Reasons Your Harassment Training is Failing).  Research suggests this bias occurs less often with people we know well – most likely due to exposure.  We see ourselves, behaviors, and decisions as a reflection of situations and the more familiar we are with situations faced by others, the more we recognize that most of us are neither all good nor all bad.  Self-awareness allows us to see ourselves objectively, recognizing the impact our decisions have on others – and that every decision is a choice.  So, next time you’re forced to address an employee’s excessive absences or tardiness, ask him, “do you feel that everyone else that makes it in on time for work has it easy?  Do you feel they do not have extenuating circumstances that they must manage in order to get to work?”  This question can be a game changer in addressing similar behavioral issues.  With more serious behaviors like harassing others or insubordination, it’s important to focus on how the employee’s behavior impacts others – and how the behavior is not in line with the company’s values or culture.  When behavior issues are deliberate such as theft, fraud, or harassing behavior that’s hostile, manipulative, or calculated, it is very unlikely the leopard will change his spots.  There is always a chance that a person engaging in scheming and cunning behavior will change for the better; however, this is a decision she will make on her own.  No punishment, threat, or training will change the behavior and in many situations the person will only use warnings to behave poorly in a more conspicuous way.  It is up to each company and leader to find the right balance of forgiveness and accountability.  People will make mistakes and poor choices – to what extent you, as a leader, are willing to accept the harm those mistakes and poor choices brings to you, your company, and employees, is a choice you must make.

It would be great if we all just got it.  If we all saw our behaviors and decisions as choices and possessed the self-awareness to see how we impact others.  The reality is, we are flawed.  There is no such thing as a perfect person and therefore cannot be a perfect employee, or leader.  A successful workplace culture isn’t about perfection.  A successful culture is about a group of unique individuals coming together to achieve a common purpose.  So the key is establishing a common set of values and then communicating, upholding, and delivering on those values relentlessly – addressing when actions or behaviors deviate from what benefits the group, as a whole, or their collective purpose.  Strong and healthy workplaces have behavioral issues. They only differ from toxic workplaces in how leaders respond to those issues.  Address the behaviors harming your company’s culture today because it’s the only way you will ever achieve your purpose.

 

Watch our tutorial on how to address employee behavioral issues here.

Need help with getting employees engaged?  Contact a Culture Engineer!

How To Talk with Employees About Performance Issues

Manager meeting with employee

What is the one thing worse than having an employee fail to meet your expectations?  Talking with that employee about it – that is worse.  It’s uncomfortable. Today one of the most common issues plaguing workplaces is our unwillingness, or in some cases unfamiliarity, of having difficult discussions.  These discussions, when done well however, elevate a business.  When talking about performance issues with employees, there are seven key components that make it an effective conversation.

 

7 Tips to Navigating Employee Performance  Discussions

A Gallup study shows employees are largely dissatisfied with both the amount and accuracy of the feedback they receive from their manager.  While historically performance discussions were limited to annual reviews, recent trends lean toward more frequent conversations such as biweekly or monthly.  Whether annually or biweekly, there are steps every leader should take to ensure it’s a quality conversation.

  1. Determine whether it’s a trend, indicating a performance issue or an isolated incident.

Particularly if you subscribe to less frequent performance discussions, it’s important to address trends differently than isolated incidents.  While isolated incidents can be damaging to companies and frustrating to managers, they do happen, to all of us.  When talking with an employee about an isolated incident focus the discussion on how to avoid the situation from reoccurring.  When discussing trends, work with the employee to identify what skill or knowledge gap is causing the ongoing issue.

  1. Meet privately.

While there may be times you choose to have a third-party present, meetings should take place in a quiet, private setting so as to respect the dignity for the employee.  Performance conversations are humbling.  The two worst things to bring into a performance discussion are a big ego and a chip on your shoulder – and they tend to accompany public shaming.  Leave the praising to public settings.

  1. Express concern.

Sometimes an employee may not recognize the impact her performance issues have on the business.  It’s therefore important to express your observations from a place of concern rather than frustration.  If you really believe a person is intentionally coming to work each day to do a bad job, you have a “will” issue, not a skill issue.

  1. Ask, don’t tell.

You may be an expert on the operational process or role but we as self-aware individuals are the experts of our own thoughts and behaviors.  So even if you believe you know what the employee is struggling with, it’s better to ask the employee why he is struggling rather than diagnose.  If Joe is not meeting sales goals, ask him why.  But keep him honest.  If Joe says he’s just having a tough month and he’s actually having his sixth consecutive tough month, respectfully remind him.  Hold him accountable to his own behavior and self-awareness.

  1. Collaborate on a solution.

Both you as the leader, and the employee should want the same thing – success.  When the employee is successful, you’re one-step closer to a successful company.  Performance discussions often become combative, which makes no sense whatsoever.  A leader doesn’t ask an underperforming employee why she is struggling to corner her.  A leader asks for the employee’s insight to empower her, a critical first step on the path of improvement.  You, as the leader, should push back on phony, surface-level reasons given by the employee such as “just having a bad month”.  This is not to be confrontational, but because you are genuinely interested in helping the employee develop professionally, and overcome challenges contributing to her poor performance.

  1. Get buy-in by asking about concerns.

We all love to have people agree with us – but in situations like performance discussions, it’s a bad sign.  Bad habits and skill gaps do not happen accidentally.  Gaps worsen over time because we dislike or undervalue the importance of overcoming them.  So, because conquering performance issues often requires hard work on the part of the employee (training, practicing, stepping out of his/her comfort zone, etc), it’s only natural that the employee will have some anxiety about the process.  Yes, natural.  A person telling you what you want to hear, a “yes man”, doesn’t bother to consider concerns.  A yes man is simply looking to appease you, putting an end to the conversation.  If the employee doesn’t express concerns, do it for him.  Ask him, in a variety of ways about how he will handle potential setbacks.  If you and the employee decide training will resolve the performance issue, ask what concerns the employee has about adding training to his already heavy workload.  “Do you feel 2-3 hours of training each week is doable given your upcoming projects and deadlines?”  Failing to plan is planning to fail, so work with the employee to resolve conflicts proactively.  This too is an important part of earning an employee’s trust that you, as their leader, care about their success.

  1. Follow up.

So, you have a great discussion, identify what is needed to resolve the issue and the issue seems to resolve itself!  Wrong.  Its the employee who worked to resolve the issue.  I guarantee, no matter who the employee is, she is waiting for you, their leader, to acknowledge it.  The same can be said for when the issue continues although the waiting is coupled with anxiety.  Set a reminder in your phone, calendar, or schedule a meeting to revisit with the employee.  Recognize the employee’s efforts when the issue is resolved.  If the performance issue persists, assess why the solution you and the employee developed failed to resolve the problem.  Without the follow up, regardless of the outcome, the performance discussion you had with the employee is a failure.  She may be a better performer, but without the follow-up, the perception is, you only care about the business, not the individuals within it.  It’s a fair-weather relationship, at best when a leader fails to recognize the collective “employees” as individuals.

Yes, it’s work.  Yes, it would be great if employees just knew how to improve without these awkward interactions.  But, we as people are complex.  Think of someone that took the time to help you to become better.  Was he genuinely concerned about your well-being or were his motives self-serving?  Was she there to celebrate with you when you succeeded?  Relationships take work and, like anything, it’s the things we work on that hold value.  Have the difficult performance discussion today and start holding your people accountable to their greater self.  A good performance discussion reminds us of what we’re capable of becoming.