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Better bosses: Changing the way we lead postpandemic

Good bosses matter—now more than ever. Here are a few ways to cultivate better leadership at scale and be better leaders ourselves.

Before the pandemic, 75 percent of Americans saw their boss as the most stressful aspect of their job. The coronavirus has put both bosses and employees all over the world under even more stress. During a McKinsey Live webinar, Tera Allas, director of research and economics, and Bill Schaninger, a senior partner, discussed the vital role bosses play in employee satisfaction and organizational success—and some concrete steps leaders at all levels can take to improve.

Research has shown that job satisfaction is the second most important determinant, after mental health, of an employee’s overall satisfaction with life—and satisfied employees have a positive impact on company performance. The presenters noted that organizations with better employee engagement, and what they call “organizational health,” have lower staff turnover, higher customer loyalty and satisfaction, higher productivity and profitability, and, ultimately, higher shareholder returns.

What makes employees happy and engaged? It turns out bosses—or managers—are a critical factor. And, although the employee-manager relationship was important before, it intensified during the COVID-19 crisis, when tailoring work routines to individuals’ needs and maintaining social connections made an enormous difference in workers’ productivity and well-being.

Being a good boss isn’t easy. A Gallup study suggested that only 10 percent of people naturally have all the traits required to be a great manager. The good news is that many of these skills can be learned.

At an individual level, there are a few steps bosses can take—first and foremost, treat their team members as human beings and understand on an emotional level how to support them. Bosses should focus on being kind (when employees perceive compassion from their leaders, they become more loyal to them), thankful (celebrating small achievements sets up a dynamic of everyone wanting to do better), positive (it builds employee confidence and reinforces beneficial behaviors), and aware of the need to take care of their own physical and emotional well-being. Although these guidelines may seem simple and self-evident, they’re often easier said than done in high-stress situations.

There are also things that organizations can do to create an environment that enables good management and makes it easier for bosses to be better:

  • Understanding and conviction: Foster an environment where it’s OK to talk about the enormous positive and negative impact leaders have on the lives of the people who report to them and the role they play in dealing with employee grief, stress, and emotions.
  • Role modeling: Identify and remove biases and actions within the organization that undermine relationships between bosses and their teams.
  • Confidence and skill building: Provide bosses with training programs and opportunities to behave differently. There are ways for everyone to build empathy, mindfulness, and self-awareness.
  • Reinforcement mechanisms: Praise and promote the managers with strong servant-leader traits, and make employee satisfaction a core part of the company’s performance evaluations.

Without these reinforcing mechanisms in place, leadership behavior is unlikely to change. And, without change, businesses are unlikely to tap into the positive potential of their people.

Questions and answers from the webinar

  1. How should bosses address the psychological safety of employees?
    A recent McKinsey survey showed that psychological safety is more likely to exist when a team leader creates a positive team climate through frequent supportive and consultative actions.

    A leader needs to solicit input from team members and consider their opinions about issues affecting them, practice situational and cultural awareness, learn to put their people’s success ahead of their own, and develop what we call “situational humility,” a mindset of curiosity and personal growth. All these behaviors create an environment where employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions, or challenging the status quo, which in turn allows organizations to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change.

    For more on this topic and the survey, see the article “Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development.”

  2. Middle managers are under extraordinary duress themselves. How is executive leadership engaging and coaching managers at work?
    Bosses need to understand and convey to middle managers that their primary role is coaching, leading, and developing people. As the connective tissue of the organization, middle managers need ongoing professional development in apprenticeship and coaching. These responsibilities are not incremental activities; they should be at the core of the job.

    Because middle-management roles are often nebulous, bosses need to make very clear to middle managers that they’re no longer there to “do” the job at hand but rather to lead the people who are doing the job. The company should also give managers the skills and capacity to develop their organization’s next generation of leaders.

    See for more on this topic, including the podcast “The vanishing middle manager.”

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For more on this topic, please watch the webinar recording and read the McKinsey Quarterly article “The boss factor: Making the world a better place through workplace relationships,” the articles “COVID-19 and the employee experience: How leaders can seize the moment” and “Help your employees find purpose—or watch them leave,” and listen to the podcasts “The boss factor” and “Grief, loss, burnout: Talking about complex feelings at work.”

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