What does a good boss look like in 2021?

Written by Ann Francke OBE Friday 17 September 2021
“A good boss is a good human being. Full stop,” explains McKinsey director and CMI Companion Tera Allas CBE
Ann Francke OBE, CMI's CEO

The pandemic has enhanced our understanding of why good managers and bosses are so significant to organisational success, so I was delighted to invite CMI Companion Tera Allas CBE to our latest Better Managers Briefing. Director of research and economics at McKinsey & Company’s UK and Ireland office, Tera recently published a paper about “the boss factor” and how managers can make the world a better place through workplace relationships.

Watch our conversation and read the summary below.


What is “the boss factor” (and why does it matter)?

Bosses have an enormous impact on people’s lives, points out Tera, as what happens in the workplace often spills over into our personal lives.

“According to research, 90% of people say the way they feel at home depends on the way they feel at work,” she explains. “How many bosses think about that? That their behaviour might be having a big impact on that person’s life outside of work as well?”

Similarly, researchers have identified job satisfaction as the main factor, after health, in determining our satisfaction with life in general. “And when you dig deeper into job satisfaction scores,” adds Tera, “you find that one of the biggest factors is having good relationships at work – most of which are determined by your boss.”

What does a good boss look like?

“A good boss is a good human being. Full stop,” says Tera whose research summarises four key behaviours:

  • Showing empathy and kindness. Understand that the people you're managing are human beings, with ups and downs, and it’s your job as their boss to support them.
  • Being positive. “The research is clear: when you give people strengths-based feedback, focusing on the positives and reinforcing the good things that are happening, the happier people are, but they're more productive too and develop faster.”
  • Being thankful. Thanking people for the little things they do, even if it’s part of their job, costs nothing but “can make a world of difference to the person receiving the email and create a culture and positive reinforcement loop where that person is more thankful to others”.
  • Looking after yourself. “Being a boss is a really stressful job, so you need to look after your own health, mental health, resilience and energy in order for you to be able to do all of those things.”

Has the pandemic made being a good boss more important?

Yes, says Tera. Her research has discovered that the pandemic has magnified the influence managers have on the work satisfaction of people in their teams.

Take flexibility and good scheduling of work. “If you look at women who have children, you find those who have good work scheduling have four times greater work satisfaction and self-reported productivity than those who have bad work scheduling,” explains Tera. “It’s common sense – if you have children, you need to be able to feed them and take them to the park or whatever.”

“You still want to do your job well. Managers who have understood that and created a more beneficial environment have enjoyed a win-win.”

Some commentators are calling this pandemic period “The Great Realization” – where people have been forced to think more deeply about their priorities. “Living and working in this very different environment has caused them to question what they’re doing and to rethink what they want to do,” says Tera. “Employers have had to think about this extremely carefully because they don't want their best people to leave. They need to find these win-wins.”

Will bosses return to ‘factory settings’?

It’s worth remembering that fewer than a third of people can actually work remotely, says Tera. “But when you survey people who have been working remotely, there’s a fundamental shift in people’s expectations that they won’t be travelling as much, spending more time on people issues and having more honest conversations.”

The best bosses, says Tera, have used the pandemic as an opportunity to engage with their people on a deeper level. McKinsey, for example, uses weekly ‘pulse’ surveys to catch and rectify potential staff issues. “The pandemic has reminded leaders and managers that ultimately organisations are all about people, and if you're not able to pick up on the typical signs you’d see in the office, you need to put extra effort into engaging and understanding how your people are feeling.”

Advice to bosses (and those who have bad bosses)

Know yourself and your impact on the people around you, advises Tera. “That means asking for feedback and benchmarking yourself on these more human metrics,” she adds. “Are my people stressed out the whole time? Are they engaged with what’s happening in the business in a broader sense? Are they feeling they can express their creativity? Are they basically satisfied with their jobs? Are they satisfied with me as their boss?”

And to those struggling with bad bosses, Tera suggests tapping into the positivity of others in your organisation. “They can give you positive energy and support. Sharing the burden with friends and mentors can act as a pressure valve,” she says. “Look after your health, too. Make sure you get enough sleep, exercise if you can, and eat as healthily as possible. It will all help you feel less stressed out, even if you have a bad boss.”

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