What makes a good boss? How to be a good manager and leader

When I was 16, I worked for a small dry-cleaning company in my tiny Texas town. My boss was awful. He was known for yelling at employees, berating people for simple mistakes, and making surprise visits where he would stand right behind you, staring over your shoulder as you sorted clothing. The first time he did that to me, I was so nervous I accidentally stapled a customer ticket to my thumb. Somehow, this infuriated him even more. He dragged me into the back room and used his pocketknife to remove the staple while yelling at me for being careless. I was a teenager and genuinely thought that’s just how bosses were. As I spent more time in the workforce, I had an array of bosses who each fell along the spectrum of bad to good, though (thankfully) nobody ever poured hydrogen peroxide over an open wound of mine again.

Of course, this story is extreme. Many other bad bosses fall into the camp of “death by a thousand papercuts.” They micromanage your work, create a toxic environment, take credit for your efforts, or are just entirely unavailable, leaving you to flounder in the deep end without a life vest.

While we all know what it’s like to have a lousy boss, have you ever thought about what makes a boss great? What traits do the best bosses have in common? The boss can make or break the job for their employees, so it’s essential to understand these attributes — especially if you manage people. In this article, we’ve compiled a list of the most important traits that good bosses share, plus some tips for cultivating these traits in yourself. Bosses, take notes. This one’s for you.

What are the benefits of being a good manager?

Have you heard the saying, “People don’t leave companies; they leave bosses”? If you are curious whether a boss is good, look at the people who report to them. If the team seems energized, upbeat, and productive, their boss prioritizes fostering a positive work environment. For better or worse, the boss sets the tone for the entire team.

Additionally, a good boss can help improve retention rates and reduce employee turnover. The number-one reason employees report leaving jobs is a toxic work environment. We saw this in droves during the Great Resignation. When you are a good boss, you are invested in the growth of your employees and will help them develop the skills that can help them reach their career goals. When employees are supported and given opportunities to advance, they are more likely to stay with their organizations. A good boss helps foster this growth and career progression.

What makes a good boss?

While every boss is different, there are certain attributes that the best bosses share. A good boss:

A good manager practices honest and direct communication

A good boss realizes the importance of honest, straightforward communication in everything they do. If they see an employee’s performance slipping, they check in immediately, often asking if the employee is okay and what they can do to help. A lousy boss accuses their employee of laziness without checking in to see what factors might be contributing to the change in performance.

A bad boss doesn’t prioritize open communication, which can result in their team walking on eggshells and feeling frustrated by unclear expectations. A good boss sets clear expectations and keeps the lines of communication open throughout the team. When you communicate honestly and directly, your employees never have to wonder where they stand.

For one week, pay attention to how you communicate. Do you find yourself hedging or leaving out information because you aren’t sure how others will react? Do you make assumptions about your employees without first getting all the information?

Next, look at how your employees communicate with you. Do they seem to feel comfortable coming to you with questions or concerns? If they never approach you, this could be a red flag. Do your employees understand your expectations, or are you noticing a lot of misunderstandings?

Your answers to these questions can help you determine if it’s time to study effective communication.

A good boss acts as a coach and mentor

A good boss understands that their team is only as strong as each individual member. You should prioritize professional development for your employees. Why? Because a good boss doesn’t want to have the same employees for their entire career. They want to mentor and coach so their team members can grow and move up in their careers. A bad boss doesn’t think about growth opportunities for their team — or worse, sabotages their employees in order to keep them where they are.

Think of your own career. You are likely also looking for opportunities to grow professionally and appreciate guidance and mentorship from the people you report to. A good boss understands that employees will come and go. Hopefully, you are looking for advancement opportunities within your own company for the best employees on your team. Of course, you might be sad to see them move on, but you can feel great knowing you helped them along the way.

Our advice to be a good boss: If you’ve been managing people for a long time, look back and note how many employees you helped move forward in their careers. If the number is relatively small compared to the number of people you’ve managed, this could be a sign your coaching abilities need some extra attention.

If you are a new manager, list everyone who currently reports to you. Do you know their professional goals? If not, start there. Make it a point to discuss developmental and career goals with everyone on your team. Then, follow through. Connect your employees with continued education, seminars, conferences, or even mentors who you know can help them along the way. Put them on projects that align with their goals. Show your team you are invested in their success.

A good boss is proactive

Have you ever been surprised by a negative performance review? It’s awful. You go into the review feeling great about your work only to find out your boss thinks you’re underperforming. Instead of feeling energized and motivated, you leave the meeting feeling hopeless and like you need to find a new job.

How does this happen? One cause is when a boss isn’t proactive with feedback. Instead, they let bad habits form without addressing them early. If you’ve had this happen to you, you understand how important it is to keep this from happening with the people you manage.

A good boss is also proactive in their own work. You have the big picture in mind, so it’s your responsibility to communicate that to everyone on your team. When each person understands what they are working toward, you can help them refine their skills and stop bad habits before they begin.

Our advice to be a good boss: Be proactive with your feedback. If you notice consistent mistakes, work with your team to brainstorm solutions. This does not mean you should micromanage your team. More on that in a minute. One simple mistake does not equal a pattern of carelessness. You have the big picture, so you know what’s important to watch out for. And if you can’t think of the bigger picture right now, then you know where to start. Also, think of the last round of performance reviews you conducted. Were any of your employees surprised by your feedback? If so, ask yourself how that happened.

A good boss models trust and delegation

Let’s talk about micromanaging. If you’ve ever worked for a micromanager, you know how they are annoying at best and completely infuriating and a great reason to look for a new job at worst. A good boss trusts their employees to do their work. You should not need to constantly lurk over your employee’s shoulder, lest they staple a ticket to their thumb.

A good boss trusts their team to complete their work correctly and on time. They demonstrate that trust by offering support without judgment. It’s okay to check in to see how projects are coming along, though; that’s part of your job as the boss and is exactly what your 1:1s or status meetings are for.

A good boss also delegates tasks, which helps everyone feel they have some ownership of the team’s overall success. Proper delegation also keeps you free to focus on the big picture while growing your employees’ skills. It’s a win/win.

One way to do this is to look back at the emails and Slack or Teams messages you’ve sent to your employees. Are you micromanaging their work? Do you check in multiple times, even though things are on track, and you haven’t had an issue with them missing deadlines? If so, ask yourself why.

A good boss celebrates their employees

When your team works hard and delivers on big projects, do you remember to celebrate? A bad boss just checks projects off a list and moves everyone on without acknowledging any of the work that went into finished projects. A good boss recognizes effort as well as results. They can celebrate the outcome and take the time to acknowledge the work that went into it.

Our advice to be a good boss: It’s important to show your employees you see their hard work. Can you think of the last time you celebrated your team’s success? If not, it might be time to plan something. When you show your employees that you see and appreciate them, you can improve morale and motivation.

A good boss creates a safe environment for collaboration

A good boss invests time in creating a safe environment for collaboration. Their teams feel energized by working together. A bad boss doesn’t prioritize a safe environment. Their employees don’t feel as though their contributions are valuable — or worse — have been mocked or admonished for sharing ideas. A bad boss creates a competitive, oppressive, unsupportive environment, which stifles creativity and leads to a hostile work environment and high turnover rates.

Our advice to be a good boss: Examine the environment you’ve created. What is the dynamic in your team meetings? Do people freely contribute new ideas? Do they feel comfortable sharing constructive criticism appropriately? Or are your meetings quiet or even hostile? Is interpersonal conflict among your team high? (More on that in a minute.) If so, you might need to invest some time in improving the environment and encouraging and modeling safe collaboration.

A good boss manages interpersonal conflict

Being the boss means stepping in from time to time to help your team manage conflict. Having conflict isn’t necessarily a sign that you aren’t a good boss. How you deal with conflict is what determines that. A good boss knows when to step in and how to mediate. A bad boss ignores conflict, jumps to conclusions, and doesn’t listen to all sides or get all the information. A good boss understands that the best way to manage interpersonal conflict isn’t by pitting one employee against another. It’s by creating a space where employees and their boss can work together toward a solution.

Our advice to be a good boss: Reflect honestly on your ability to manage conflict. Do you avoid it? Do you give room for other people to share their perspectives, or do you simply tell everyone to get over it and move on? Think of the last time you helped your team manage conflict. Was it resolved, or is it still simmering under the surface? You likely already know if this is an area where you need to grow.

Next steps

Being the boss can feel overwhelming. Just remember that a good boss is an advocate, mentor, and gatekeeper for their team. If you focus on team goals, the growth of your employees, and fostering a positive and collaborative environment, you are not a bad boss.

What other attributes would you add to our list? What advice would you offer to new managers about what makes a good boss? Let us know in the comments! Also, if you are currently dealing with a bad boss, you might be looking for a new job. Take Payscale’s Online Salary Survey to see what your earning potential could be in a new position.

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