24 Golden Rules to Being a Great Boss
The skills that got you your new gig may not be enough to help you keep it. If you've just been promoted and don't have a clue about what to do next, these tips from been-there-done-that pros will help you manage like a boss.
Every editorial product is independently selected, though we may be compensated or receive an affiliate commission if you buy something through our links.
Become a beloved boss
If you’re in a boss role at work, you undoubtedly know that there’s a stigma around bosses, and a stereotype that people complain about their bosses constantly. In fact, you may very well have had a boss that you weren’t wild about yourself. While it’s exciting that you’re in this new role, you’ll surely want to avoid being considered a boss-zilla. Here are some great tips from real bosses to make the people you’re managing appreciate you. Plus, find out things HR people won’t tell you about salaries and raises.
Know your people
In addition to recognizing the traits of a good worker, being familiar with your employees’ strengths is crucial. “If Tom is a great cashier, and customers love him, don’t have Tom in the kitchen. You need Tom to be energized, and energizing others through his work,” says Kevin B. Donovan, MS, senior vice president, Otsuka-People. Donovan stresses the need for bosses to know their employees, both on the job, and off. That means spending time observing their strengths, and weaknesses, so that you can best harness their talents. Think of these strengths as beauty points, he says, and bosses need to find their own, as well. “You must explore ways to provide your employees with an environment to demonstrate those beauty points. I have experienced too many bosses looking to always make improvements in competencies, and capabilities, that will only be temporary at best, and never make a difference in our contributions to the business,” he says. Find what your employees do best, and they’ll always make you look good. Help them maintain a solid life-work balance, and they’ll be loyal forever. Here are more ways to build trust with your employees.
Think like an employee, act like a manager
Your employees want promotions, and you want to be noticed by your boss, as well. Think like an employee to be a great boss, says sales and marketing expert Jerry Acuff. “Employees want us to care about them. They want us to help them succeed. The best way to do that is by providing competent job instruction, combined with providing your workers independence in doing their job,” he says. Keep in touch with the things that mattered to you when you were an employee, such as praise for a job well done, and make a point of providing those things. “Fall in love with your people. You have been entrusted with one of the most important responsibilities in life—helping someone else succeed,” he adds. Remember that, and you’ll always have your staff’s devotion.
Anyone can boss other people around, but it takes true skill to inspire. The best way to be an inspirational leader at work is to feel inspired yourself. Love your work, look for ways to make it better, and then look for ways to make it amazing. Instill that desire and drive into your employees, and they’ll fight for you. “People want to work for a leader, not a boss. Boss spelled backward is double SOB,” jokes Acuff. Learn the signs you have an awesome boss.
Be the fixer
It’s the most common cliché in the workplace book—the boss passes the buck (and the blame) whenever something goes wrong. That’s OK: Work, like life, is filled with mistakes, and mishaps. Some are minor, some are serious, but all present lessons that bosses, and employees, can learn from. Don’t be the boss that flies off the handle when a mistake is made, or, even worse, blames their employees for their own foibles. “Communication, and providing clear instructions, can nip lots of problems in the bud. For everything else, be the boss that fixes the problem, rather than the one that fixes blame on someone else,” urges performance improvement specialist Linda Harris-Cosby, MS Ed, of Harris Training and Consulting. One key way to fix problems? Always be honest with your employees and yourself about what went wrong, and make sure to provide solutions on how to fix it. That way, everybody wins. These are the clear signs you can’t trust your boss.
Let’s be friends—not
If you’ve been promoted, and are now leading your former peers, you’re in a potentially sticky spot. Some people on your staff may feel resentful. Others may hope to capitalize on your former chumminess. As the boss, it’s your job to lead your team, not to pal around with them. “Don’t pretend you’re something you’re not. Don’t try to be friends with your team, but rather, understand, and respect that the role of a leader is challenging, for both you and for them,” cautions Donovan. Just keep the boundaries clear, don’t show favorites at work (or over-compensate by giving your friend the cold shoulder), and make sure everyone understands the new game plan.
The only way you can stay ahead of the curve is by maintaining clear, consistent communication with your employees. This means letting them know you’re approachable and also taking the time to schedule regular sit-downs. Executive career coach Natalie Currie recommends committing to a schedule of monthly meetings with your most significant employees and keeping this time sacred. “Protect this time in your calendar. During one-on-one meetings, remove all distractions that might keep you from fully engaging in the conversation. Hold the meeting in a quiet space, and silence your technology. A distracted boss is a demotivating boss,” she says. Make sure to spend the bulk of this time really listening, so that your employee feels heard, and motivated to contribute. Check out these time management tips that actually work.
Be a strength-spotter
Nothing is more likely to turn a good worker into a resentful one, than pointing out their weaknesses, over and over again. “As a species, we are quick to notice mistakes and weaknesses in others. Wrong-spotting is even more pronounced when people are under stress. Continually pointing out weaknesses is a sure-fire way to elicit defensiveness in employees,” says Currie, who recommends strength-spotting, instead. “This is a simple, easy, highly effective way to bring out the best in your staff. There is a wealth of social science evidence to show that we grow most in our areas of strengths. Catch your people when they are doing something good, and the more specific and timely the praise the better. It only takes a few seconds to acknowledge when someone does something good. Practice this daily, and you will reap significant benefits in team engagement and productivity,” she adds. These are the secrets your boss won’t tell you—but everyone needs to know.
Let go of the reins
Currie suggests taking 5 percent of the tasks you’re currently responsible for and delegating them to your most trusted employees. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘It’s simpler to do it myself,’ and stay in the office, working late. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you are protecting your team by taking on all of the work. In reality, you’re stifling your team’s growth, and depriving them of new learning experiences,” Currie says. You’ll need to make an investment in time up front by coaching your team, but letting them go the distance enables them to rise to the occasion, just as you once did. As an added benefit, you will have more time and energy freed up for your most important work.
Your employees want to shine. So make them accountable for their own workload, goals, and responsibilities. “Unfortunately, many bosses tend to dictate what will be done, how it will be done, and when it will be done. This didactic method greatly reduces the interest, and motivation, of people to be accountable for their own work,” says Donovan. He suggests starting out by asking your new team what they are accountable for as a group, and what they would like to accomplish, over a defined period of time. “When you engage your team with what needs to be accomplished, and allow them latitude in determining how the work will get done, individual accountability, plus a sense of collaboration, will begin to unfold. If you do not hold people accountable the team tends to undermine each other and the toxicity of the workplace becomes something you will not survive,” he says. If you need to travel for work, here’s what you should know.
“Too often, the boss is the first one to share their perspective, leaving their team with no other option but to agree,” says Currie. She stresses that the role of a good boss is to stimulate thinking, and invite the group to share a broader set of ideas. Try starting with this, says Currie: “Ask your employees to share what they think, before you provide your commentary. If you feel the urge to speak up first, ask the following question: ‘I’ve got some thoughts on the topic, but first I want to hear from each of you. What do you think about ______?'” This will let your employees know how much you value their input and opinions. Watch out for these signs that your boss is a micromanager.
Provide a clear map
It’s really hard, if not impossible, for your team to reach a goal if you’ve never told them exactly what that is. You may think it’s obvious but remember, you are the one with the overall vision and the best person to see how it’s coming together. Great managers will take the time to write down clear goals and set measurable expectations for each employee, says Alison Green, of the blog Ask A Manager and author of Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work.
Have high expectations and high attentiveness
“The best managers know how to push you toward ambitious goals without getting into the realm of the unreasonable or the unrealistic,” Green says. This means not only knowing what your employees are capable of but understanding what they’ll need from you to get there. “While good managers have high expectations, they’re willing to brainstorm with you about how to meet those expectations, not just assigning you a big goal and then disappearing,” she says. Do you know the top quality Steve Jobs looked for in his employees?
Take a vacation already
You may think that to be a great boss you have to always be the first in and the last out, pushing yourself the hardest, if you want to inspire your team. False, Green says. All humans need rest to do their best work and you are no exception so it’s important that your employees see you taking the occasional break, vacation, and, yes, sick day. “If you have a manager who herself never stays home, that usually makes people feel they’re expected to do the same—even if the manager doesn’t actually feel that way,” she explains. Here’s why taking vacation days can actually help your career.
Confront mistakes immediately—yours and your employees
Don’t like confrontation? Join the club. Yet as a manager it’s your job to have difficult conversations, especially when it comes to acknowledging and fixing mistakes at work. While it’s fine to let a few small, non-critical mistakes slide (no one likes their spelling errors in an email corrected), when it comes to problems that hurt the work, it’s important to be proactive in acknowledging your own mistakes and firmly but kindly pointing out those of your employees; then set up a plan to fix them, according to Steve Wang, HR professional, hiring manager, and recruiter. “Whatever you do, do not just sit and wait for the problem to go away on its own,” he says. Learn the things you’re doing at work that CEOs wouldn’t.
See your coworkers as people first, employees second
The members of your team are people, not just cogs in a machine, and great bosses know that a little human kindness and understanding goes a long way. One good way to do this is to ask polite, but not overly personal, questions and then really listen to the answers, says Gina Folk, author of 30 Strategies to Ensure Your Team’s Success and creator of the Mentor Up Method. Remembering birthdays or other important events is helpful too. These are the 15 things bosses say they never want to hear again.
Don’t force employees to read your mind
Frequent, quality communication is the key to be a highly effective boss, Wang says. Even if you think of yourself as the strong silent type, it’s important to keep your employees and higher-ups in the loop as they may read things into your silence that you don’t intend, Wang says. Don’t confuse this for micromanaging—the goal isn’t to tell everyone what to do all the time—but do keep the lines of communication open, offering feedback and asking for questions or comments.
Be a manager, not a daycare worker
“Great bosses know that they’ve hired adults and will treat their employees as such by trusting them to manage their own time and responsibilities,” Green says. When you hire good people there’s no need to micromanage them, so let your employees do their work their way, she explains. For example, a good boss wouldn’t demand a doctor’s note when someone’s out sick or prohibit telecommuting simply because they don’t trust employees to work when they can’t see them. Check out these amazing jobs where you get to be your own boss.
Ask for differing opinions
Presumably, you’ve hired your people for good reason—they’re smart, capable, and talented. Don’t let that go to waste with a “my way or the highway” attitude. Instead, great bosses will seek out input on everything from how to perfect a strategy to whether a deadline is realistic and will be open to dissenting opinions, Green says. “Decisions won’t always go everyone’s way, but a good manager will make sure that people feel heard and respected, and will genuinely want the benefit of hearing perspectives other than their own,” she says. Check out these tips to deal with toxic co-workers.
Follow the 30-second inbox rule
As a boss, you may feel overwhelmed with the number of messages, emails, calls, and other requests people make on your time, yet a great boss will respond in a timely manner, says Monster Career Expert Vicki Salemi. Try this quick shortcut top managers swear by to help you stay on top of everything: If it will take you less than 30 seconds to do, do it right then. Most emails only need a two- or three-sentence reply, so don’t waste time putting it off and just answer the message.
Avoid the water cooler (conversations)
As the boss, you’re privy to confidential information that could hurt or help your employees, and while the temptation to engage in a little office water cooler gossip is real, you have a responsibility to stay out of the interpersonal dramas. Gossiping, encouraging fighting, and sharing (or hoarding) secrets all create a toxic office environment which can lose you good employees, Salemi says. These are the 9 signs your employees may not trust you.
Make sure your praise outweighs your criticisms
Giving regular feedback, both positive and critical, is just part of a managers job, but a really stellar leader will take the time to give each employee clear and specific feedback through the year about what they are doing well and what they could do better, Green says. “You shouldn’t shy away from saying hard truths but overall your employees should hear much more positive than negative feedback from you,” she adds.
Make eye contact and keep an open posture
Personal interactions are at a premium in our high-tech world, which makes those in-person moments even more important when they do happen. Looking someone in the eyes while they’re speaking may seem like a small thing but it’s hugely important, says Robin Schwartz, professional in human resources at MFG Jobs. Maintaining steady (but not creepy) eye contact shows you are paying attention and you value the other person’s time. Standing closed off and frowning is one of the 16 signs that make employees think their boss hates them.
Keep your cool in tense situations
A company is only as good as the people that work there, so valuing and keeping good employees is a top priority of great bosses, Green says. One way they do this is to always treat everyone with dignity and respect even when tempers flare. “A manager who yells, disparages people, shoots the messenger or expects you not to have a life outside of work is failing at one of the most important tests of a manager,” she says. “Good managers know that good employees have options and that they won’t stay long in a workplace that mistreats them.”
Don’t take things personally
Office relationships can sometimes get confusing, but your coworkers are not your family and they really are not your friends either. Great bosses know how to maintain a warm relationship while still keeping an appropriate professional distance, says Jeannette Seibly, executive coach at SeibCo, LLC. So if you hear something bad about yourself from an employee or through the grapevine, don’t take it personally. If there is a seed of truth to it, take the criticism well and learn from it. If it’s just angry venting, either talk it out or let it go. Don’t miss these other things amazing bosses do every day.
- Kevin B. Donovan, MS, senior vice president, Otsuka-People
- Jerry Acuff, sales and marketing expert
- Linda Harris-Cosby, MS Ed, performance improvement specialist at Harris Training and Consulting
- Natalie Currie, executive career coach
- The Counseling Psychologist: Therapist Use of Client Strengths: A Qualitative Study of Positive Processes
- Alison Green, of the blog Ask A Manager
- Steve Wang, HR professional, hiring manager, and recruiter
- Gina Folk, creator of the Mentor Up Method
- Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster
- Robin Schwartz, professional in human resources at MFG Jobs
- Jeannette Seibly, executive coach at SeibCo, LLC