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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 3

How to Be a Better Boss




THINKSTOCK

I took on my first “boss” role a couple of years ago while overseeing a tiny cadre of junior-level editors at a national women's magazine. The media industry isn't exactly known for having easy managers—ever read The Devil Wears Prada?—and I hadn't had any formal management training in my 10 years in the business. So I governed mostly by the Golden Rule and by asking myself, “WWWD?” as in “What would Wendy—a great former boss of mine—do?” Modeling my behavior on a successful mentor worked, and when I left my management post, the staffers seemed genuinely sorry to see me go. As I looked into what research has to say on the matter, it's clear why Wendy's tactics worked. The key to being a good boss is a combination of humility, confidence and the right kind of carrots.

#1 Rein in your ego. A group of organizational psychologists at Michigan State University and the University of Akron became interested in workplace arrogance during the global banking implosion, back when private-jetting, hotheaded leaders at doomed institutions like AIG were always in the news. They dug into existing research and found that arrogant bosses—those who blow off feedback, disrespect employees' ideas and avoid blame by pinning it on others—are destructive to business. That kind of behavior leads to a stressful work environment and more employee turnover. Humble leaders, however—those who are open to new ideas and able to admit when they are wrong—are more likely to garner employee loyalty. You can't expect your staff to always love or even like you—but at least as a humble boss, you'll get them to stick around.

#2 Give employees some control. Psychologists who study management talk about job stress a lot because of all the ways it can affect a company: medical costs, sick days, morale and turnover. Time after time, researchers find that one of the most consistent ways to reduce stress among workers is to offer them a little more autonomy—a sense of control over their own job. Not everyone can set their own hours or cherry-pick duties, but you can offer choice to employees in many other ways, says Edward Deci, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester who has done some of the seminal research on self-determination at work. “If we don't get rigid as managers or business owners, we can allow for employees to work some things out in terms of what feels good for them,” he says. Allow them to vote on changes as a group, for instance, or ask which of two available shifts they would prefer. The best bosses, Deci says, “make employees feel understood and as if they have some choice in what they do and how they do it.”

#3 Take the weekend off. Most of us have had a moment late at night or over the weekend when something important comes to mind, and we dash off a quick e-mail to a colleague or subordinate. That's fine—as long as employees don't think you expect an immediate reply. YoungAh Park, now at Kansas State University, studied the use of technology at home and found that workers who used phones or computers for work-related stuff during off-hours had less psychological “detachment” from the office, and it left them less happy and more stressed because of it. A separate study at Portland State and Bowling Green State universities showed that employees who thought about and engaged with work the most during off-hours were less effective than average. People who never checked in or thought about their job when away from it tended to perform poorly, too. Apparently—as in everything else—moderation is key when it comes to answering work e-mails from home. As a boss, it's your job to establish a culture that allows people to unplug when they're off the clock.

#4 Use carrots, not sticks. It's pretty well accepted in the work-psychology world that fear of punishment isn't a great motivator. But there is still some debate about whether “tangible” carrots such as bonuses and prizes truly inspire either. One carrot that nearly always works, according to a large meta-analysis by Deci and his colleagues, is positive feedback. “Most managers don't give much positive feedback—but it's something that feels good to anyone who's getting it,” Deci says. “It really means supporting someone's sense of competence. When people are highly motivated, engaged in their work and committed to it, they do it well. And when they do it well, that gives positive results for the company.”

That's one piece of advice I'll definitely take into my next boss role: When employees do a good job, remember to tell them so. It's easy and doesn't cost a thing.

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