How to win at being the boss

Many excellent and highly-qualified employees are promoted to managerial positions only to find themselves struggling and failing – in the new position of leadership.

Fortunately, it is never too late to become a good boss. 

For many professionals, the promotion to management is an exciting time. It is the next step on the corporate ladder, to gaining greater prominence at a company or organisation and an opportunity to fast track your career. But what if you are not a born leader, an introvert who prefers working alone, or even more challenging – find yourself unable to motivate teams and are constantly faced by situations of conflict with co-workers?

Author and motivational speaker Barry Moltz remembers the formal feedback from his team upon his promotion as first-time manager. He was shocked. They thought I was a bad boss. Not a single leader ever starts out that way, but over time, it can happen. No one wants to be a bad boss, but it is actually easier to become one than you think.

Moltz is right. Nobody wants to be a bad manager, but the stresses of the job combined with the pressure from the top and having to direct previous friends and co-workers can cause tremendous tension for individuals coming into positions of new management. Is it any wonder that middle managers have the most stressful position in a company?

According to a Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health study, middle managers have higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than entry-level employees or company owners or leaders. The study of over 20 000 individuals revealed that the middle manager reported twice the level of anxiety of workers and also had higher levels of depression.

It is true that many new managers are given the promotion based on their work performance – as outstanding engineers, accountants, marketers or doctors, for instance. But in their new role of manager, they don’t have as much need for the skills they were trained in. On the contrary, the new manager finds him or herself having to activate skills they may not have learnt before or are comfortable with – such as mentoring, communication and problem solving.

Apart from possibly financial and administrative skills, the new manager will find his/her time increasingly taken up with talking to superiors, meeting with employees, checking on suppliers or customers and clients, making phone calls, answering emails – basically communicating. That is why managers need to be masters at communication. It is estimated that managers spend between 60% and 80% of their time communicating.

But according to one study published in the Journal of Emerging Issues in Economics, Finance and Banking, only 17% of employees said their managers communicated effectively. The results of bad management are well-documented – a loss in productivity and a drop in office morale as well as increased absenteeism in the workplace coupled with health issues for employees and managers.

Fortunately, much of the problems that are attributed to bad management can be corrected. Good communication skills can be learned and developed through formal training and practice. And it starts with learning how to listen and then, how to trust and let go.

Few people understand how to listen properly. When confronted by employees bringing up problems, either personal or professional, too many managers jump to conclusions and judge the individual or try to solve the problem themselves. They don’t know how to talk to people and guide them into solving their own problem. By helping an individual to reach their own conclusion as to how to solve a particular situation, the employee gains a sense of ownership as well as a feeling of empowerment. Giving employees the confidence to sort out their own issues is an instrumental skill of the manager.

Listening also extends to being able to hear and accept feedback. It’s no good becoming defensive and emotional for instance when told that you have fallen short in some way. Train yourself to listen properly to the employee’s concerns, ask for concrete examples and deal with the matter as calmly as possible. Self-knowledge and self-acceptance are foundational here too.

By listening and supporting your team, you will gain their trust and you in turn need to learn to trust them. Many managers come from the factory floor or offices and know how to do the job well. This can mean that they are quick to point out failings or potential weaknesses in another’s behaviour. Learning to trust others to do their work in their own way, perhaps at a different pace or following other methods is important for a new manager.

With trust, managers are also more able to let go and to delegate. This is critical, because a good manager cannot be doing the work of their team employees in addition to their own – this will lead to impossibly heavy workloads and increased stress. As UCT Graduate School of Business alumnus and business veteran James Espey comments: “You can’t own a pack of dogs and do the barking yourself.”

Being a good manger and a good boss really boils down to being able to build and develop relationships – with co-workers, company leadership, stakeholders and shareholders. That’s how you get the job done. It is about talking to people, listening and interacting in a way that is respectful, meaningful and productive. Fortunately these are skills that can be practised and honed throughout your career. And even if the results of your first 360 are less than flattering, as they were for Barry Molz, the good news is that it is never too late to start the journey towards becoming the world’s best boss.

Jenny Boxall is the convenor of the New Manager programme at the UCT Graduate School of Business.

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