Be a Better Boss: Five Critical Mindsets

The word “boss” conjures up memories of the good, the bad and the ugly ones we’ve endured throughout our careers. Bosses shape how people experience work: full engagement versus boredom, joy versus despair, enthusiasm versus complaints, good health versus stress. Most bosses want to be good at what they do, yet many lack the essential mindsets that precede positive actions and behaviors.

As a boss who strives to do great work, you must adjust your thinking. The beliefs and assumptions you hold about yourself, your work and your people will determine your actions, according to Stanford University management professor Robert I. Sutton, PhD, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Learn from the Worst (Business Plus, 2010). Sutton writes: “The best bosses embrace five beliefs that are stepping stones to effective action.”

Mindset #1: Goldilocks Management

Managers who are too assertive will damage relationships with their superiors, peers and subordinates. Conversely, those who aren’t assertive enough will fail to inspire their teams to strive for stretch goals, according to a study conducted by business professors Daniel Ames, PhD, and Francis Flynn, PhD (of Columbia and Stanford Universities, respectively). There are times when bosses need to coach people, discipline, communicate direction and intervene. The savviest bosses look for the right moments to apply pressure or encouragement to get the best out of their people. In choosing to be neither too hot, nor too cold, and adjusting their approach as necessary, they command respect instead of contempt.

Mindset #2: True Grit

“Gritty bosses are driven by the nagging conviction that everything they and their people do could be better if they tried just a little harder or were just a bit more creative,” Sutton writes. They are committed to the basic principle of continuous improvement. Such bosses instill grit in subordinates. Without creating the impression that everything is an emergency, great bosses have a sense of urgency. They are both dogged and patient, sensing when to press forward and when to be flexible. University of Pennsylvania Assistant Professor of Psychology Angela Duckworth, PhD, and her colleagues define grit as perseverance and passion toward long-term goals. “Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress,” they wrote in a 2007 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper.

Mindset #3: Small Wins Count

The path to success is lined with small wins. Framing goals as a series of small steps helps people see the importance of their participation. Smaller goals also help people make better decisions, sustain motivation and manage stress. When subordinates experience a challenge as too big or complex, they can freeze up. When problems are broken down into bite-sized pieces, a boss inspires clarity, calmness and confidence while helping to breed success.

Mindset #4: Avoid Power Traps

Numerous studies show that people in power tend to become self-centered and oblivious to what their subordinates need, do and say. Wielding power over others can cause you to:

  1. Become more focused on your own needs and wants
  2. Become less focused on others’ needs
  3. Act as through written and unwritten rules don’t apply to you

Good bosses remain on guard to avoid such power traps. They never forget how closely they are watched by their people, and they resist taking advantage of their position and ignoring others’ needs.

Mindset #5: Provide a Human Shield

Great bosses protect their people, going to bat for resources and support. Even when they may suffer personally, great bosses are willing to take such risks. They shield their employees from red tape, meddlesome executives, nosy visitors, unnecessary meetings and a host of other time wasters.

“A good boss takes pride in serving as a human shield, absorbing and deflecting heat from superiors and customers, doing all manner of boring and silly tasks and battling back against every idiot and slight that makes life unfair or harder than necessary on his or her charges,” Sutton writes.

The Questions to Ask Yourself

1.  Identify energy drains and energy sources.

  1. Are you managing with just the right degree of assertiveness?
  2. Are you creating ways to walk the line between enough intervention and micromanaging?
  3. Are you neglecting to give your people guidance, wisdom and the feedback they need to succeed?
  4. Are you obsessively monitoring every move and metric?

2.  True Grit

  1. Do you treat work as a marathon or a sprint?
  2. Do you look for quick fixes?
  3. Do you instill a sense of urgency without treating everything as a crisis?
  4. In the face of failures, do you persist or give up?

3.  Small Wins

  1. Do you frame what your people need to do as a series of small, realistic and clear steps?
  2. Do you propose grand goals?
  3. Do you break things down into bite-sized steps?

4.  Power Traps

  1. Do you remind yourself that your people are watching you closely?
  2. Do you avoid doing little things that undermine their performance and dignity?
  3. Do you ignore the little things that could be perceived as overuse of power?
  4. Do you realize that everything you say and do will be magnified in your subordinates’ minds?

5.  Human Shield

  1. Do you see your job as caring for and protecting your people?
  2. Do you fight for them when necessary?
  3. Do you consider it too much trouble or too risky to battle superiors on their behalf?
  4. When your people screw up, do you take the hit or hang them out to dry?
  5. When you screw up, do you admit it?
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