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Being a good boss isn’t easy—here’s how to get better

Good bosses are essential for employee satisfaction and retention. These four practices can help strengthen that leadership muscle.
Tera Allas

Leads economic and business research on growth, productivity, innovation, technology adoption, and outcome measurement

Bill Schaninger

Designs and manages large-scale organizational transformations, strengthening business performance through enhanced culture, values, leadership, and talent systems

Managers are more important than ever as employee satisfaction moves to the forefront in today’s race for talent. In fact, according to McKinsey research, one of the top factors that employees cited as a reason for quitting amid the Great Attrition was that they didn’t feel valued by their manager.

In contrast, people at organizations with good employee-manager relations report significantly higher satisfaction with their jobs: Among those who say that management relations are “very good,” 74 percent state they are very or completely satisfied in their job, versus only 15 percent of those who say relations are “very bad.”

Countless studies also show the empirical link between employee satisfaction and business outcomes like customer loyalty and profitability. One large-scale meta-analysis found that business units with top-quartile employee engagement achieved operating-profit margins that were 1-4 percentage points higher than those in the bottom quartile.

But being a good boss isn’t easy—one study suggests that only 10 percent of people naturally have all the traits needed to be a good manager. Many incentives for leaders are also misaligned; research suggests that some leaders may even achieve their positions by being self-centered, overconfident, narcissistic, and manipulative.

In contrast, the fundamental elements of good employee-manager relations are the same as with any other human relationship: mutual trust, encouragement, empathy, and good communication.

Regardless, any manager can become a better manager and, in turn, play an essential role in improving workplace happiness and employee satisfaction. These four simple, human practices are a great place to start.

  1. Empathy, compassion, and vulnerability. A manager who genuinely cares about an employee’s well-being tends to be curious about it. Sincerely asking, “How are you doing today?” creates an opportunity for employees to raise issues and to feel safe when they do. Moreover, curiosity and compassion typically go hand in hand. Research shows that when employees perceive compassion or kindness from their leaders, they become more loyal. Loyalty in turn feeds better performance at work.
  2. Gratitude. The simple act of thanking people is win-win: It doesn’t cost anything, and everyone feels better. Being thanked makes people feel valued. Celebrating small achievements helps people face larger challenges and sets up a positive dynamic where everyone wants to do better. But don’t overdo it. People can tell when their bosses and senior leaders are just following a script without truly meaning what they say. Hone the ability to feel genuine thankfulness and express it in a heartfelt way.
  3. Positivity. Giving positive feedback builds employee confidence and reinforces beneficial behaviors. Unconditional positive regard—the practice of validating feelings, withholding judgment, and offering support—bolsters motivation and fosters authenticity. In addition, positive regard is a key contributing factor to developing an individual’s sense of autonomy and self-competence, which is directly linked to greater happiness and well-being.
  4. Awareness and self-care. Leaders must first help themselves before they can do the same for others. When highly stressed or anxious, it’s hard to be empathetic, thankful, and positive. Being a supportive and compassionate manager is easier for people who are aware of and at peace with their own inner state of being. The recipe for self-care will be different for everyone, but it most often includes attention to diet, exercise, downtime, and sleep. For many, mindfulness or other meditation practices are also powerful sources of resilience.

Indeed, micro-actions often count more than larger, structural changes. One silver lining of remote work is that it has helped us see our colleagues as people first by giving us a peek into their homes, families, and lives. That works both ways, with employees also able to see a more human side of their managers. Bosses who build these practices into daily habits can increase employee satisfaction while becoming better—and happier—people themselves.

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