How to be the Best Boss



Learning, motivation, and performance

During my research, peoples’ stories painted a vivid picture of how low job control is all too common in many offices today. I heard much about the ever-evolving performance-evaluation criteria that made it tough to know how to succeed; the business trips rearranged without explanation; and even about a workplace “scout” who had to discern the boss’s mood and alert the others.

The picture isn’t pretty, and it can be costly. A chaotic workplace environment of frequent, uncontrollable events adversely affects people’s motivation, their cognition and learning, and their emotional state. If, through their actions, people cannot predictably and significantly affect what happens to them, they are going to stop trying. Why expend effort when the results of that effort are uncontrollable, rendering the effort fruitless?

That’s why research shows that severing the connection between actions and their consequences—leaving people with little or no control over what happens to them at work—decreases motivation and effort. It significantly hampers learning on the job, too. People’s ability to learn by observing the connection between actions and their consequences normally permits them to attain some degree of mastery over their environment—an understanding of what they must do to achieve the desired results. In a condition of low job control, on the other hand, people have less responsibility and discretion, which undermines their feelings of competence and accomplishment and ultimately contributes to stress, anxiety, and depression.

Simple steps toward control and autonomy

When you’re a child, the people in your life—teachers, parents—tell you what to do. As you get older, you begin to make your own life choices. And then one day, you get a job. Depending on your boss, your employer, and the design of your work, your choices about what to do and how to do it, at least while at work, can disappear—leaving you more stressed, more vulnerable to ill-health, and, sometimes, less than yourself. There are some straightforward actions companies can take to avoid creating such an environment.

Guard against micromanagement

Micromanaging is all too common at work, simply because many managers are poor at coaching and facilitating others to do their jobs better. When managers micromanage their subordinates, those individuals lose their autonomy and sense of control to the bosses who won’t delegate.

Work doesn’t have to be this way. The founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, thought of the company as a place where “everyone kind of knows the role that they need to do, and does that work independent of extreme management.” He leads using a principle he calls “management by absence.” The company reduces the risk of micromanagement by having a flat organizational structure, with more people than any manager could possibly micromanage even if he or she wanted to.

Similarly, at Zillow, as a learning-and-development person there put it, “the manager’s role is to support the team and be there to help remove roadblocks, not to be the dictator.”

The head of human resources at Landmark Health agreed, saying, “If somebody feels like the work that they’re doing is not valued, if they personally don’t feel like they have a voice at the table, if they feel like they’re dictated to or micromanaged, they’re going to feel less fulfilled and more tired.”