Management: how hard can it be?

Nobody sets out to be a horrible boss but getting the best out of people isn’t easy.


Everyone remembers an awful boss, yet nobody sets out to be loathed by their staff. Most of us like to imagine we’d be a great boss – until we find ourselves in the role and come up against difficulties. Can management really be such a challenge?

How to be a good boss isn’t rocket science. Nor is there much disagreement about what’s required. Good managers enable their employees to do their best work. In a fast-moving world our leadership skill is not just about being smart and well-educated and having the knowledge to do a good job. It’s about enabling others towards decisive action and emotional conviction.

As Dan Pink said in his book Drive, people are motivated when they have autonomy, mastery and purpose. As bosses, therefore, we just need to enable the people around us, giving them freedom to do tasks the way they want, allowing them opportunities to develop and making sure their work feels meaningful.

If only it were that easy. In reality, there’s an enormous gap between what we know we should be doing and what we actually do. This is a puzzle. Why are there so many poor bosses? Have they had insufficient training? Are we putting the wrong sort of people in charge?

The first hurdle for any boss is the management bubble. How do you get to the truth of what’s happening in your company? You can ask people, but you worry they’ll either give you the good news because they think that’s what you want or dump on you because it’s their only opportunity to interact with the boss. More usefully, you might find a way of cutting through the hierarchy. Spend some time working on the front lines, arrange informal lunches, or institute ‘skip-level’ meetings where you meet occasionally with people two levels below you – all as ways to get closer to how your employees look at the world.

A good boss is self-aware

Second, the metaphor of the elephant and the rider comes into play. We like to think our smart brain (the rider) is in charge but, in practice, our emotional, irrational brain (the elephant) often takes over. So while we know that what we need to be doing is giving space to others, giving recognition to our colleagues, being thoughtful in our judgements, our natural tendency is often to do the exact opposite.

For example, most of us have a need for control. We like to be in charge. We like to make sure the people who are working for us are doing things in the right way. We know the principle of giving somebody lots of space to work on their own project but the minute we see them doing something which doesn’t feel quite right we yank them back and say, “Are you sure you’ve understood the brief correctly?"

This means that being a good boss isn’t just about understanding our employees better: we also need to understand ourselves better. We’ve got to be smart enough to say, “Look, I know what I’m meant to be doing and I know that I often slide into this less-good aspect of management, so I’ve got to create techniques and tips to pull myself back to doing the job better.” A good manager understands their own strengths and weaknesses.

There’s another element that will affect how well you manage and that’s what sort of organisation you find yourself in. We can identify three idealised types of organisation in the world. If your company is a bureaucracy, your position on the organisational chart matters a great deal. In a meritocracy, the person who ultimately calls the shots is the one who has the most relevant expertise on a particular issue; knowledge has privilege over position. In an adhocracy, taking action is what counts and we default towards trying things out differently.

Every organisation will be a combination of these three models but one will dominate.

What sort of organisation do you work in? Take this quiz to find out

Question 1: You’re aiming to get various functions of business units to align around a complex project. How do you proceed?

A. We define clear deliverables, make sure everyone knows who’s accountable and what their roles are and we monitor progress.

B. We bring key people together from the different functions, we spend a lot of time discussing our roles and how we can contribute.

C. We work closely with the customer, have frequent updates with them and regular project meetings and make significant changes depending on user feedback.

Question 2: A frontline employee is dealing with an unhappy customer who feels the service the company has provided hasn’t been as good as expected. How do they typically respond?

A. They push back, explaining that the company acted in accordance with the rules. If the customer pushes harder they might escalate the problem.

B. They seek to understand what’s gone wrong, to get to the root of the problem so that they can find a better way of working in the future.

C. They realise the customer is upset and take immediate action to placate them, even if that goes against formal policy.

Question 3: Where does your boss spend most of their time?

A. At their desk, chairing meetings, seeking input from direct reports, evaluating progress against objectives.

B. Debating important issues with colleagues, reading up on the latest trend, sitting in class or talking to experts about developments in the industry.

C. Out of the office, meeting customers and prospective customers, walking the corridors, talking to frontline employees about their challenges.

Mostly A: you work in a bureaucracy

Mostly B: you work in a meritocracy

Mostly C: you work in an adhocracy

Adhocracy is a desirable model in today’s fast-changing business world because it enables experimentation and front-line commitment. But it’s incredibly fragile. Whenever any organisation goes through any sort of crisis, whenever there’s a downturn, people gravitate back to the model of working they are comfortable with. We need to find ways of protecting adhocracy – by putting those activities in separate units or by making sure we put leaders in charge of those activities who are a little more proactive or maverick in the way that they work.

Organisations that want to grow and innovate need individuals who do things in unusual ways. We can think of them as ‘unreasonable people’, who adapt the world to their own way of looking at things. Steve Jobs was said to create a reality-distortion field that people around him bought into, and Elon Musk has a similar skill.These types of people are crazy in a good way, because they say, “I don’t care how things have been done in the past; I’m going to come up with a better way.”

As bosses, what should we be doing to nurture and support these types of unreasonable people? Firstly, create a psychologically safe environment in which people don’t mind trying unusual things because they know they’re not going to be punished for it. Good leadership is about letting go and getting everyone around you to experiment.

And, while we often focus on the so-called inventor, we should be giving equal credit to the mentor or sponsor who is helping that person get purchase on that idea within the more traditional way of working.

Finally, while being a good boss is mostly about letting go, sometimes you need to be prepared to step in. Sometimes, the best course of action is so ambiguous that enabling others to find solutions isn’t the right answer. In those instances, the best bosses act decisively themselves. They say, “The way forward is not clear so I’m going to shape it myself.”

Comments (1)

Ahmed Hazarika 3 years, 3 months and 26 days ago

Adhocracy need to be practiced to save certain situations while keeping the organisational goal in mind, however it should be defined as to how much flexibility an organisation would allow depending on area of work.