This post will be the first of several that explores the theme of “Good Leaders are Good People.”
About 15 years ago, I read somewhere that people who make good leaders tend to look favorably own their own leaders. (I liked it so much that it is now Rule 39.) The opposite is also true: people who will be bad bosses tend to see their own bosses as bad bosses until proven otherwise. It seemed like a revelation at the time. The more I thought about it and the more I observed people around me, the more I realized it made perfect sense. The way a person looks at their boss tends to also be the way they look at everyone around them.
A person who naturally respects, trusts, and empathizes with others will assume a new boss is probably ok the first time they meet them. That person will continue to assume that the boss is ok until the boss does something to prove them wrong. Someone who does not naturally have those traits will tend to not like their boss from the beginning. The boss has an uphill battle to prove to this employee that the boss is ok. Those traits of respect, trust, and empathy are just as important in a boss.
In 2019, John Brandon of Inc. Magazine wrote an analysis of a Bamboo HR poll of the worst boss traits.1 The number one issue was the boss stealing the credit for the employee’s work. The number two issue was the boss not trusting or empowering the employee. Number two was almost a tie with number one and for good reason: they both are symptoms of the same disease, which is a lack of trust. A respectful, trustworthy person is not going to steal the credit for what others do. A respectful, trustworthy person will not feel threatened when they empower others.
If the leader does not respect and trust the team, then the leader does not fully delegate tasks to the team. The most common result is micro-management. Doubt creates the urge to constantly ask for extra status reports, to constantly give unwanted and unhelpful suggestions, to constantly butt in2. That leads to a suffocating, stressful environment since the team will struggle to find the time to do the work in between the constant interruptions. The leader’s doubts may even lead them to form wasteful contingency plans which in turn drain resources from the team.
It gets worse. Once the lack of respect and trust get together with the lack of empathy, the evil offspring is rudeness and hostility. Christine Porath gave a TED talk that showed rudeness directly causes mistakes to be made. The hostility shown to us takes over our minds, and we overlook information even when it is right in front of us.
Lack of respect, trust, and empathy also blinds the leader to the consequences of their meddling. They do not see the stress they put on their team, the lost productivity from excessive reporting requirements, and how their alleged help is actually causing the team to churn in place instead of move forward. In her TED talk, Porath cited research by Morgan McCall and Michael Lombardo that correlated insensitive, bullying behavior by executives with failure. The domineering bosses who lead their teams to success are few and far between.
Domineering behavior does not suddenly emerge when the promotion arrives. A person who is going to be rude, distrustful, and callous is going to demonstrate those traits early. Rudeness can be trained out of someone when the cause is a lack of social grace. Distrust is a harder nut to crack, but a good mentor can help coach the person in delegation and the organization can build trust by creating a safe space (more on psychological safety another time). I have not found a simple answer to address callousness. The advice that I have encountered assumes that the callous person has recognized the fault in themselves and is looking for help. My research has turned up little guidance on how to suggest the callous person to realize they need that help.
I hope this exploration of the bad is helping you see what makes up the good. Brandon followed up the bad boss analysis with the natural complement: 10 best boss traits. Number one? Empathy. Number two? Trust. Porath closely linked civility with high performing teams.
A leader who gives respect freely is going to let their team execute. The leader will check-in, will ask if help is needed, pitch in when required, and then step back. The team can then concentrate on moving forward rather than constantly reporting in. The instinct to give respect instead of forcing it to be earned works the other way too. When it is the employee giving respect to their boss, the boss won’t feel threatened that the employee will try to take their job and will feel heard when they do have a suggestion or ask for an update. Coworkers will support the employee because they also don’t feel threatened and will feel heard. Discussions will be honest. Honest discussions lead to problems being talked about early. Identifying problems early makes it easier to solve them. Everyone puts their attention on the task at hand because they’re not trapped by fear or busy trying to process the last round of drama.
Good leaders and good employees are not fools, however. They give respect and trust, but they still apply discernment. Good leaders will trust the team to do what might be possible, but they will still assess the probability of success. The will then set some form of criteria so they know when to help and when to stay back. In software development, this could take the form of developing the application in two week sprints. The leader can evaluate progress after each sprint and understand if more help is needed or they need to lower expectations. Meanwhile, they stay out of the team’s way!
Good leaders are good people. If you want to help your organization succeed, find the people who play well with others. Then promote them over the people who live just for themselves. In future posts that will address Rule 39 and its close relatives, I’ll explore topics like complementing (not just complimenting) others, how leaders focus on supporting the team instead of being supported, and more. Stay tuned!
- Brandon, John 2019, “10 Worst Boss Traits (Ranked in Order of What Makes People Quit Most)”, Accessed 2022-09-10, https://www.inc.com/john-brandon/bad-boss-traits-ranked-in-order-of-what-makes-peop.html
- Brandon, John 2019, “10 Best Boss Traits (Ranked in Order of What Makes Employees Stick Around)”, Accessed 2022-09-10, https://www.inc.com/john-brandon/10-best-boss-traits-ranked-in-order-of-what-makes-.html
- D’Cruz, Jason, 2019, “Humble Trust”, Philosophical Studies. Accessed 2022-09-10, https://rdcu.be/be2bu
- Dillon, Robin S., “Respect”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), Accessed 2022-09-10, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/respect/.
- McLeod, Carolyn, “Trust”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Accessed 2022-09-10, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/trust/.
- Porath, Christine, “Why being respectful to your coworkers is good for business”, Accessed 2022-09-10, https://www.ted.com/talks/christine_porath_why_being_respectful_to_your_coworkers_is_good_for_business?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare
I cited both Brandon’s analysis and the BambooHR poll because some links on the BambooHR site seem to have disappeared. I normally prefer to just cite source material when the derived article is just a summary of the source. ↩
The sarcastic quip “we’ll keep having meetings until we find out why nothing is getting done” is often said in jest, but I’ve seen too many cases where meetings, reports, and the need to find someone to blame take precedence over moving forward. ↩