The First Requirement for Becoming a Great Boss
by Linda Hill & Kent Lineback
Among the many requirements placed on those who take responsibility for the performance of others, there is one that is rarely mentioned. Yet, ironically, it may be the most important because so much else depends on it.
That fundamental requirement is courage.
We don’t just mean the courage to make hard decisions or take tough actions, such as giving difficult feedback, denying a promotion to someone who’s good but not good enough, cutting popular but unsuccessful programs, or even laying off people when the economy goes bad.
We mean all that — those and similar actions do require courage — but we also mean something even harder: the need to see ourselves as others see us, even when others’ perceptions don’t match our own. Risking the possibility of finding out that others don’t consider us the capable, well-intentioned bosses we think we are requires enormous courage.
We know a highly competent and caring manager whose people had to spend several late nights completing an important project. Though the work didn’t require her presence, she stayed late, too, as a way of sharing their burden and showing her support and appreciation. Weeks later, only after she thought to ask, she learned that those who stayed late resented what she did. Rather than seeing her presence as a sign of her support for them, they took it to mean she didn’t trust them to complete the work on time. Her presence thus weakened the bonds among them all and achieved the opposite of her intentions. She found this out only because she happened to ask casually.
How many of us blithely — and incorrectly — go along thinking that others see us as we see ourselves?
Another manager thought he was a good delegator that in fact he may have been delegating too much. But his people considered him an overbearing micromanager. He was shocked and hurt by this revelation, which forced him to rethink much of his relationship with them. Yet another person we know thought he was communicating clearly how much he cared about the group he headed and its work. But many of his people thought he only cared for how he looked and his own career.
To understand why this is so important, think for a moment about what you do as a boss. To fulfill your responsibility for the work of others, you strive to influence others. You attempt to make a difference in what they do and in the thoughts and feelings that drive their actions.
There are several ways you can do this but, except for coercion — “Do it or I’ll fire you!” — All forms of influence begin with trust. People must be willing to be influenced, and that willingness comes only from trust.
Do the people you work with — your reports, colleagues, and superiors — trust you? By breaking trust into its two core components, we can ask the same question in a more useful way: Do people believe you’re competent — that you know what to do and how to do it as a boss? Second, do people have confidence in your character — your intentions and values, what you want to do and what you care about most? Trust is about the future and people’s ability to predict what you will do. For that, both your abilities (competence) and your intentions (character) to do what’s right are critical.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “I’m basically competent and, heaven knows, I mean well.” If you think that, beware. Lots of research (including Linda’s own, as well as Kent’s experience) makes one thing clear: most bosses overestimate how positively others see them. The fact is, you don’t know how others see you or whether they trust you, if you don’t somehow ask.
How do you ask? It’s not easy. If people don’t trust you, if they hold a low opinion of you as a boss, they’re highly unlikely to tell you outright. Even when others hold you in high regard, they will still hesitate to be candid about those areas where you need to improve. And it certainly doesn’t help that incompetent, insecure bosses often ask for people’s opinions. “You can tell me the truth,” they say, but everyone knows they’re looking for praise, and that criticism will only anger them.
How to proceed given these obstacles? That will be the subject of our next blog because it deserves and requires more space and time than we can give it here. Our point now is that you must work proactively to find out what others think of you as a boss. Few of your colleagues and direct reports will volunteer such information.
Whatever you do, however you do it, you will need courage just to seek such feedback, and even more to digest and take action based on it. But there’s no other way to become a great boss. No wonder there aren’t more of them around.