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To be a great business leader, you need to make these subtle changes

Greg McKenna

Not everyone is cut out to be the boss, to be a leader in business. But in many, probably most, businesses and industries managing your colleagues is an essential element to climbing the corporate ladder as your career progresses. And the success with which you achieve this task and the performance you get from yourself and your team is then part of the next step and progression of your career.

This means being a good boss may be critical to your ultimate career success. But being a great boss, even a good boss, is harder than it seems, with the boss often responsible for "low performance and high turnover," Professor Ann L McGill said.

McGill, who is a professor of general management, marketing, and behavioural science at the University of Chicago's Booth Business School, said most people want to be great bosses but fall short for 2 main reasons.

The first is that we fall for the stick, not carrot approach. "We berate employees for falling short, instead of praising them for doing well, because we mistakenly believe that punishing them for poor performance will put fire in their bellies and that cheering them on for doing well will make us seem soft or silly," she says.

Naturally, the result of this is a team which is worried about upsetting the boss and getting shouted at – so they end up less inclined to take chances so they don't upset the boss.

Clearly that is a failure to understand how humans are programmed, McGill said.

The second reason we fall short is an almost exclusive focus by some bosses and organisations on pay and perks to retain top talent means we render our colleagues "transactional". The trouble is "what [employees] want profoundly is recognition and a sense that their work is meaningful" she said.

This is a step along the road to "dehumanise" those colleagues who report to the leaders. And according to McGill there are two triggers which have facilitated the growth in this trend.

The first trigger is technology.

Citing the work of a recent ChicagoBooth Phd student Hye-young Kim, McGill said, "we have learned that the more we engage with smart technology, the less we see others as fully human". As businesses digitise and more technology robotises processes and changes the jobs people do, this is a problematic finding. What the research found was we increasingly see machines as similar to humans and that this recognition flows the other way too – we see humans as machines. The result is a "mistaken expectations of robotic behaviour from employees".

This distorts the relationship between bosses and their reports and means companies and leaders are "asking employees to function as robots in these ways or in these circumstances leads them to fall short and quit or, worse, to snap in ways that hurt our business and then quit," McGill said.

The second trigger to dehumanisation is a lack of individuality and identity with businesses.

Interestingly, with current workplace trends McGill said many businesses and bosses "freak out and sputter in the face of diversity" preferring to dress colleagues in uniforms, have them adopt a "uniform look of the company or industry" and telling them to be team players which, she said, is short hand for 'be the same as everyone else'.

The result again is to dehumanise colleagues via this "forced sameness" which also drives unreal expectations of these "robot" employees. This means leaders stumble as their teams are unhappy and less effective than they can be, because "we fail to see these people as, well, people".

How to be a better boss and get the most from your self and your team

Naturally, given McGill sees the dehumanisation of employees and colleagues as a key part to disfunction as a business leader her first piece of advice to be a better boss is to "remember those folks who work for you are fully human".

She said this is not going to be easy because while her remedy is to "ask about their emotions, their experiences, and their aspirations" she noted that many bosses may be "tempted to step away from people, not toward them".

McGills advice is not let yourself get caught in this trap and create a cold and distant workplace. Rather she says, it is possible to balance respect and warmth with grace.

Part of the ability to make this change successfully is to also take McGill's second piece of advice to be a better leader. That is, remember your own humanity. How often have we seen people playing the role of boss treat others in a way or say things they would never say in a social situation or outside of the office.

They've failed to bring themselves to the office, McGill said, advising bosses to not "playact at being a diminished person: the unfeeling, badass boss".

Critically, if being a good leader, a great boss, is part of your career progression then remembering your own humanity is going to be an important part of your own success and that of your team. That's because in order to solve the complex problems that arise in business and to take advantage of the opportunities as they arise, to understand your customers increasingly complex and changing needs and wants, and to inspire your team "you will need the capabilities of a complete human mind", McGill said.

In doing that you'll be the best boss you can be and maybe a great leader. You, your team, your business, and your career should all reap the benefits.

You can read the full paper here