How to be a better boss

Mending your ways requires taking an honest look at yourself to understand how and why you behave as you do.

by Julian Birkinshaw
Last Updated: 02 Jun 2014

As managers, we like to think we are doing a good job but, if we are being truthful with ourselves, we know there are things we could do better, especially in terms of how we get the most out of our employees.

What employees want is challenging work, space, support, and recognition. Do you consistently provide these things to all your employees?

My guess is sometimes you do, but at other times you lapse back into less desirable behaviours such as micromanaging, selfishness, or inattentiveness.

Why don't we do what we know we should? We are too busy, we have conflicting priorities, and our employees have such different needs that it is hard to keep them all happy.

But there is much more going on here as well. The so-called knowing-doing gap is a pervasive problem, even with managers who have plenty of time and few direct reports. I think there are two linked explanations for this.

One is that many managers don't truly, deeply believe in the importance of giving their employees lots of space, or coaching them, or providing proper feedback.

The other explanation is that we don't turn knowledge into action. Just like losing weight or exercising more, there are aspects of good management that we know we should do, but other things just keep on getting in the way. We lack the self-control to do what we know we should.

To become a better manager, you need to develop self-awareness, so that you are more conscious of the less-than-rational ways in which you often behave. Armed with these insights, you can then develop a set of techniques and tricks to help you change your behaviour.

--

Why do we behave the way we do?

 

There is mounting evidence that we are all behaviourally flawed. We have biases and shortcomings in the way we process information and in how we act on it. These biases detract from our ability to take the rational or smart course of action in a particular situation.

Behavioural economics tries to make sense of the weird and wonderful ways in which the human brain works. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and founding father of this field of research, says that problems stem from the fact that we have two parallel systems in our minds:

  •  System 1 operates automatically, with little or no effort. We can detect hostility in a voice, drive a car on an empty road, or understand simple sentences, without any sense of voluntary control.
  •  System 2 requires the conscious allocation of mental effort. If we want to check the validity of a logical argument, monitor the appropriateness of our behaviour in a social situation, or tell someone our phone number, we have to pay careful attention to the task in hand.

These two parallel systems have been characterised in many different ways: the doer and the planner; the emotional and the rational; the id and the superego; and the elephant and the rider.

Very often, our behavioural flaws occur because System 1 (the elephant) has already reacted to a situation before System 2 (the rider) has had a chance to intervene. This is why we procrastinate, why we make snap decisions that are wrong, and why we occasionally get into fights.

Sometimes, though, the problem is the other way round and System 2 takes over, leading us to overanalyse a problem or become overwhelmed by the choices we face.

So here is the key idea. For most of us, management is an unnatural act. We know what good management looks like, but it takes a lot of conscious effort to follow through on it.

Using Kahneman's terminology, our System 1 response as a manager is often very different from what our System 2 logic would tell us we should do, so we have to work extra hard to do what we know we should.

I think it is useful to break good management down into two linked sets of principles: letting go, which means giving up power to others, sharing information and letting people make mistakes; and giving credit to others, which means recognising their achievements and looking for ways to enrich their work.

Sitting above these two sets of principles is a third principle we can call self-control, which means making the right trade-offs and choices among competing alternatives.


Letting go

 

One of the hallmarks of a good manager is the capacity to let go - to give power and freedom to others, to share information freely and willingly, and to allow people to make mistakes. But it is human nature to hold on to power and to hoard valuable information.

So what can you do to be more effective and more consistent in letting go?

The starting point, as always, is to get it clear in your own head why giving your employees freedom is the right approach. Here are four techniques I have observed and experimented with over the years to help us become better at letting go.

- Give up one visible element of control when you move into a new position. When Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, he formally ceded control of the Bank of England to its governor, a move that previous administrations had vehemently resisted. More prosaically, many people make symbolic changes when they move into a senior executive role, for example, giving up the corner office and moving into the middle of the open-plan area, or scrapping the executive dining room.

- Develop a signature practice that highlights your organisation's commitment to letting go. Unlike the one-off change you make when moving into a new position, this is typically something you develop over time and formalise as a day-to-day practice that everyone participates in. For example, the CEO of fund manager Bridgewater, Ray Dalio, makes a point of recording and archiving all internal meetings, to put substance behind his principles of transparency and accountability.

- Make a conscious plan to stop doing a few specific activities every week. The notion of writing a 'stop doing' list to go with your 'to do' list is well known but very hard to implement. So I have developed a slight variant on this model, as follows. I ask managers to evaluate their planned activities over the next two weeks to find out which ones they think are least important and most easily delegated (these are usually the same) and I ask them to identify five hours' worth of activities they can either drop or delegate. I then follow up with them to see how successful they were.

- Give your employees enough rope. Perhaps the hardest thing you can do as a boss is to let your team persevere with a project when your gut instinct tells you they are going in the wrong direction.

Your controlling self (the elephant) wants to pull them back and give them the benefit of your experience, but your empowering self (the rider) knows that they need to figure it out for themselves. The simple advice here is let them fail.


Giving credit to others

 

The second basic principle of good management is to give credit to others. However, this isn't easy to live by, as it is human nature to take credit for your own achievements and indeed to believe that your own skills and capabilities are superior to those of the people around you.

So how can you become more effective at giving credit to others and downplaying your own achievements? Own your failures, share your successes. Your natural predisposition is to do the opposite, so, as a guide to behaviour when you are uncertain how to proceed, sharing your successes is almost always the right way forward.

As with letting go, there are some specific techniques that you can employ to make this a bit more practical for yourself.

- Work yourself out of a job. Each level of management adds value to the one below. Well, that is the intention, anyway. In reality, there are often overlapping roles between layers in a hierarchy, leading to disagreement and frustration.

So one useful way of approaching an executive job is to imagine that the role won't exist in, say, two years' time, and your job is to train up everyone so that they make you redundant. Now I realise this approach is risky.

If your enlightened approach to management is not shared by your boss, it is possible that the goal of 'working yourself out of a job' may actually happen. But, in my experience, this discipline of pushing as much work down as possible in fact had the effect of changing the nature of the work I did as a manager - it forced me to spend more time on mentoring and supporting activities; and that resulted in better performance all round.

- Package work - even routine work - into projects. When I ask managers about a piece of work they did where they felt fully engaged and motivated, they talk about it being challenging, worthwhile, and free from interference.

Importantly, they almost always find themselves recalling a particular project, which suggests one way of giving more credit and responsibility to others is to structure work into a series of projects. It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to see how much of the day-to-day work we do could be repackaged in such a way.

- Nurture your critics and own up to your mistakes. Finally, there are aspects of your personal management style that are closely linked to your potential to give credit to others. One is a capacity to take personal responsibility for problems that emerge on your watch, whether or not they were of your own making.

Unfortunately, the ability to say 'sorry, I was wrong' is one that the vast majority of managers struggle with.

So how can you become better at taking ownership of your failures? One prerequisite is unfiltered feedback - that is, advice and evidence that tells you when things have not gone well. Some organisations push the principle of straight-talking, whether boss to subordinate, subordinate to boss, or peer to peer.

At Intel, this principle is called Constructive Confrontation; at McKinsey, it is called the Obligation to Dissent; at Bridgewater Associates it is called Radical Transparency.

If you don't work for a company that takes feedback seriously, you have to nurture your own critics: sometimes this is an executive coach; sometimes it is personal friends; sometimes it is an anonymised 360-degree review that lets your subordinates say what they really think.

To use economist Tim Harford's term, these people represent a validation squad that can help you overcome your enormous capacity for self-delusion.


Self-control

 

The third principle of good management is self-control - the ability to regulate your own emotions and instincts. As we have seen, good management is often about overcoming your natural instincts, but not always.

There are times when an emotional response is more powerful than a rational one, and there are some situations where a 'gut' decision is better than the one reached through careful analysis.

So if the two previous principles were essentially about downplaying your instincts, this one is about learning how to strike a balance.

Let's be clear: self-control as I am describing it here is hard to achieve. In many situations, we don't have time to metaphorically stand back and decide how we will respond. Moreover, if we behave in a way that doesn't look natural to those around us, we come across as devious.

So the message is not to abandon your natural style of working. Rather, it is to be sufficiently knowledgeable about the benefits and limitations of your natural style so that you can catch yourself before you make a blunder.

So how can you increase your capacity for self-control?

- Become more attentive to your own shortcomings. We are prone to cognitive laziness. We fall back on learned behaviours and we let our habits take over. To break out of this cycle, we need to develop little tricks and stimuli to make us more attentive, more aware of our shortcomings.

Karl Weick is a leading social psychologist based at the University of Michigan and during the 1990s he studied what he called 'high-reliability organisations' such as aircraft carriers and nuclear power stations, where the tolerance for error was close to zero. We all know that people get into behavioural routines at work.

Weick discovered that these high-reliability organisations had created mechanisms and norms of behaviour to encourage employees to transcend these routines. There was a 'refusal to simplify' complex situations, a preoccupation with potential failure, and a fluid approach to organisational structure, with people apparently duplicating effort and moving between roles.

These mechanisms helped to create 'mindfulness' across the organisation.

So how can you apply this logic to your own behaviour? Dan Ariely, a leading figure in the world of behavioural economics, has done many experiments in this area, for example, asking people to sign their tax return before filling it in, to encourage them to disclose all their taxable earnings.

His conclusion is simple but profound: 'While ethics lectures have little to no effect, reminders of morality, right at the point where people are making a decision, appear to have an outsize effect on behaviour.'

The implications for you as a manager are straightforward: you can create simple stimuli, from a note on your diary, to a poster on your wall, to a conversation with a coach or mentor, before important meetings or conversations.

These stimuli serve to remind you of what is important and reduce your tendency to lapse back into routine or subconscious behaviours.

- Be explicit about why your intuition goes against the empirical data. As we saw above, experts and powerful people have an enormous amount of belief in their own wisdom.

Fred Goodwin, the former CEO of Royal Bank of Scotland, was reported to have a 'five-second rule' for making decisions. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, was also a famous believer in the power of experience-based decision-making - as his autobiography, Straight from the Gut, made clear.

However, the other side of the argument is also compelling. Here is Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com: 'The most junior person in the company can win an argument with the most senior person with a fact-based decision.'

So which is it? Should you follow your gut or should you let the empirical analysis guide you? Well, the answer, as always, is that it depends, but to make this facile statement a bit more useful, I propose another metaphor, which I call Managing by GPS.

When your sat-nav proposes a route in a town that you know well, do you follow it? Or do you take a different route, because you believe you know better?

After experimenting with this, I quickly reached two conclusions: (1) if I always follow the GPS route, I occasionally get into trouble; (2) if I choose my own route, I occasionally come out ahead, but usually find myself lost or following an inferior route.

These insights have led me to the following strategy: whenever I believe I know a better route than the one the GPS is suggesting, I ask myself, on what basis? If I know there has been an accident, or bad traffic, things the GPS cannot possibly be factoring in, then I go with my choice.

However, if I cannot make a rational case to myself, then I (reluctantly) follow the GPS advice.


Overcoming our natural instincts

 

The world of business is filled with managers like you who are seeking to become more effective in their work. However, the evidence suggests the gap between what we want to achieve and what we are able to achieve is as big as ever.

I spend a lot of time working with companies on these issues and one of the interventions I often get involved in is small-scale experiments. Very often, the experiment is a success, but the real insight ends up being: so why don't we just do this stuff anyway?

Lack of time and resources are only part of the story. I think the underlying problem is that so many aspects of good management involve going against our natural instincts.

We have to work very hard to overcome our need for control and our bias for self-aggrandisement. We also have to be very self-aware to realise when our behavioural flaws are getting in the way.

There are no simple solutions here, but I hope this essay has offered some useful tips and tricks to help you be more aware of your own shortcomings and more thoughtful about ways of overcoming them.

This is an edited extract from Becoming a Better Boss: Why good management is so difficult by Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategic and international management at London Business School. It is published this month by Jossey-Bass at £18.

**WIN A COPY!**

MT has 10 copies of Becoming a Better Boss: Why good management is so difficult to give away to lucky readers. Click here for your chance to win.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today