Why Bosses Are Important


As hierarchical, social animals we are not surprised that bosses have such a significant impact on our employment experience.

Bosses must be important because 80% of people who resign from a job do so because of an unsatisfactory relationship with their boss.
The significance of the manager role lies in the characteristics of being human:

1.    We are hierarchical social animals. This means that the person who has authority (power) over others holds a special role in the group.
2.    Part of our instinctive wiring is that we bond closest with a small group of around seven other people (our family-sized group). If there is any dysfunction in this group (our work team) then we hold the leader of the group most responsible.
3.    We are sensitive to how power is used, so if managers use power inappropriately then we become disenchanted with the manager. "Inappropriate power" means if managers over-use power (such as aggression, intimidation, micro-managing) or under-use their power (the passive, laissez-faire manager).
4.    We are highly sensitive to our social standing. Our boss has the single biggest impact in enhancing (or diminishing) our standing in the work organisation.   
5.    We are sensitive to cliques in our social groups. Our manager has the largest influence on the existence or absence of cliques in our work group and the resultant harmony of the group. If our manager is particularly close to some people and not others, then those the manager are close to are deemed "favourites" and the rest of us are on the "outer". Managers need to be careful that they don't drive cliques through their own behaviour.
6.    Although our boss has a significant impact on our work-life, we are generally denied the opportunity to select our boss (in democracies we vote in governments but not organisational leaders). So if we are dissatisfied with our boss and the organisation doesn't respond, we might opt out by looking for a group we would prefer to be with.

So on the one hand it's reassuring for bosses to know that people will find it natural to have a manager. On the other hand the boss has the responsibility to lead the team and to be the sort of boss people want to work for. In the foreword to my book I talk about being the sort of boss who adds energy to people.

Emotion and output
Humans are emotional animals, so it's not surprising that our relationship with our boss is emotional and our work experience is an emotional one.  
I highly recommend an article from the Harvard Business Review on the connection of our feelings to our outputs and the role of managers. The authors had 238 people keep a daily diary of work events. The authors found a clear cycle that occurs in people's daily work experiences. The cycle starts with an event - something happens (someone asked me to do a task, I had my appraisal, my manager appreciated my work and so forth). When an event happens the person immediately makes sense of that event and this sense-making relates to how it makes them feel (emotion). The emotional reaction immediately affects motivation - if the emotion is positive, then motivation is lifted and vice versa. And the final step in the cycle is that motivation affects performance - a lift or drop in productivity, creativity and commitment to work. (T.M. Amabile and S.J. Kramer, "Inner Work Life", Harvard Business Review, May 2007).
The authors make the point that work events are happening all the time, so our emotional radar is switched on all the time, which means our motivation and output is being affected constantly by what's happening around us at work. For example, they found a positive work experience lifts someone's creativity by 50% and the positive impact on creativity can continue for two days.
The authors found, not surprisingly from the perspective of human instincts, that managers have a major impact on this emotion-motivation-output cycle - causing the cycle to be positive or negative.

The one thing for managers to do

The good news is that the authors discovered the one most important thing that managers can do to make the cycle a positive one. The finding is this: enable your people to move forward in their work. That is, be the sort of manager, and manage in the sort of way, that enables people to make progress in their daily work! It can be that simple. This is a reassuring message as any manager is capable of this requirement. You don't need to be charismatic or to have a personality transplant. You just need to help people move forward in their work.
Helpfully, the authors list enabling management behaviours:

  • Setting clear goals (what is expected and why it matters)
  • Providing adequate resources and time for people to do their job
  • Remove barriers that might hinder people
  • Provide feedback from a learning perspective (not a blame perspective)
  • Give sincere appreciation for the work people do well.

This message fits neatly with the message in The Boss to be the sort of boss who uses every-day management events to add energy to your people, rather than the energy-sapping experience the main character, Lauren generally finds is the case for her. By a separate email I'll let you know more about this second edition of The Boss and some aspects of this edition that should help with management development in your organisation.
The gossip test
If you are a manager, you are encouraged to use the "gossip test". Knowing that your people will gossip about you (that's what humans do), the question is "what do you want your people to say about you?" The gossip test is used in The Boss. As a manager, write down the five words you want people to say about you to their friends and family. Then live those words.



Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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