Today, I spoke to Linda Hill, who is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, the faculty chair of the Leadership Initiative, and author of Being the Boss. In this interview, Linda talks about how to be a good manager and leader, how to handle conflict, and more.
What does it mean to “be the boss”?
“It means to be responsible for the work of others, to answer for the results others produce.”
It means to be the one, when work is done poorly and results fall short, who is called in and told to explain. Bosses carry out this responsibility by influencing others – making a difference in what others do, think, and feel – including both those who report directly to them and many others who do not.
“Being the boss” refers to being the one with formal authority and accountability for a group’s performance. Just because you have formal authority or the power “to tell others what to do,” does not mean you should rely on that source of power to get people to do what is necessary or right to get a job done. If you want people to be committed to a particular course of action, formal authority is a poor tool of influence, although sometimes necessary and even crucial but usually best used rarely and lightly. Instead of authority, the key to influence is trust based on the boss’s competence (knowing what to do) and character (intentions, values). Besides many of the people you will be dependent on to make sure your group performs well are people over whom you have no formal authority (e.g., bosses and peers upon who you are dependent to get the resources your group needs).
We use the term “boss” because it’s widely used by all generations and it avoids the often unhelpful distinction between managing and leading. Someone responsible for the work of others usually has to do both.
“Being the boss” is a role assumed overnight but mastered through a journey of self-discovery and learning from experience that takes years. Why years? Because mastering the role almost always requires the boss to undergo a change in their professional identity, a personal change, akin to the kind of change we all experience on leaving home, getting married, or having a child. Like these profound life transitions, becoming a fully effective boss requires a personal transformation in how we see ourselves, relate to others and get satisfaction from work. Too many bosses underestimate what’s required and how long it will take them to become the boss they can and should be. Sadly, because they don’t understand what’s required, they develop to the point that they’re comfortable with the role. But then they mistake comfort for competence and stop growing.
In Being the Boss we argue that managers need a new way of thinking about their work – a way of thinking about what must be done to influence their people to make them productive and achieve results. We present an approach that we call the effective manager’s 3 Imperatives: manage yourself, manage your network, manage you team.
- Manage yourself –Your core task as a boss – to influence others – begins with who you are and comes down to one key question: Do people trust you? Many managers, new and experienced, don’t realize that their ability to influence others begins with them as individuals and the relationships they create with others. Some create relationships based on authority – “I’m the boss!” – and others use personal ties – “I’m your friend!” Both approaches are flawed. All real influence besides coercion is based on trust – people’s belief in your competence and character.
- Manage your network – To succeed, you must create a network of those outside your control whom you depend on and who depends on you. Interdependence is a fact of life in all organizations today. Many managers dislike and avoid the political side of organizations. Others relish the internal battles and focus on them to the exclusion of all else. Both groups fail to appreciate the need to work effectively in political environments without becoming enmeshed in or controlled by them. Instead of the fly caught in the web, you must become the spider that creates the web – your own network – and dances lightly over it.
- Manage your team – Manage your team is about building a high-performance team that’s more than the sum of the individuals involved. In managing their own people, many managers never grasp the critical difference between simply managing a collection of individuals and managing a real team. Not only is a real team more productive and innovative, but its members are more engaged and committed. Effective bosses manage through a team and its social structure – its purpose and goals, which are critical, along with the culture (norms, ideals, standards) and processes team members develop for working together.
How do you handle conflict in the office without looking bad?
Conflict is inherent in all organizations. Division of labor (people and groups have different jobs and goals), interdependence (all groups depend in some way on each other), and scarce resources (the pie’s not big enough for everyone to get what they want) guarantee conflict. The ability to work effectively in such an environment, to keep conflict constructive, is a crucial part of being an effective boss.
As a boss, you’ll be able to handle conflict more effectively
- …if you’ve built a network of relationships that predate and will survive any conflict. It’s hard to build relationships – trust – when the only time you talk to someone is when there’s a problem and you both start with different interests and points of view. A network of relationships won’t prevent conflict, which is inevitable for the reasons given above, but it will create a setting in which all parties will be more interested in reaching a fair resolution.
- …if you in effect take the high road by focusing on the work and work-related issues, not personalities or personal differences, and if your interests are clearly aimed at achieving work, not personal, goals. Work hard to keep work conflict from degenerating into personal feelings.
- …if you’re open, honest, and forthright with others about the issues as you see them, and always, always, treat others with respect. Being open means reaching out to those who oppose or disagree with you. It means that you take responsibility for maintaining relationships and constantly moving toward resolution.
Can you give an example of a time when someone was “the boss”??
Here are three examples:
- John heads a product development team working in a highly competitive, fast-developing field. They cannot predict the future, but they must constantly makes bets about how the field will develop and how they can nudge it in the directions they want. John created a wiki for the team to use as a place where together he and other team members can constantly update their views of the future with new information, ideas, and possibilities. Material is welcome and expected from everyone. In fact, John keeps track of contributions and jiggles those who say little. He not only contributes his ideas but he also adds his knowledge of the organization and its goals and strategies as a context in which the team operates.
- Mary goes to see Kim, a new group member, one morning. Kim regularly prepares and distributes a report to other members who depend on the information it provides. Kim had only done the report twice and the second time, the day before, he was a day and a half late. “Kim,” said Mary, “I want you to go talk to Quentin and Josepha. They’re expecting you, not to chew you out but to show you how they use the report and why when you’re late it’s such a problem for them.”
- Jackson is conducting a regular meeting of his direct reports, managers who run their own groups. The end of the quarter is approaching, a tense time for making sure their quarterly numbers reach target. One report is describing problems he and his people are having with an important project when another report jumps in to accuse the first of holding down his own expenses by slowing down work that the second group needs to finish its work. There’s a tense exchange between the two over the reasons for the slowdown, and Jackson lets the conversation go forward. But when the second report blurts out, “All you guys care about are your own numbers! I don’t know if you’re lazy or just don’t care about finishing something on time, but go be lazy on your…” At that point, Jackson interrupts to say, “Enough! I know it’s tense times. But there are reasons for what’s happening and I expect you, both of you, in fact, to keep each other informed and work together. Personal accusations and feuds won’t be tolerated. If you can’t work it out, come see me right away.”
What are some tips for managing yourself?
Three important ones come to mind:
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. Figure out which are killing you or will keep you from advancing, and focus on those. Part of this is knowing your own needs and inclinations. If you don’t know them, they’ll dominate you. If you don’t realize, for example, that you dislike conflict and will do almost anything to avoid it, you’ll let problems fester until they turn into disasters. If you understand that fault, you may not be able to change it, butyou can look for it and take care that it doesn’t lead you to act (or not) without thought. And you can ask others to help you face and resolve conflict.
- Reflect on your daily experience. Find some regular time during the day, perhaps on the commute home, when you review the day’s events and think about how you might have done them better. Think of each in terms of the options you had and why you chose the one you did. We don’t learn from experience automatically. We need to work at pulling from it the lessons we should learn.
- Seek feedback. The evidence is overwhelming that we all evaluate ourselves more favorably than others do. We need to know how we come across to others. Are we having the effect we think we are. Though her presence wasn’t required, a manager we know stayed late two nights in a row to show support for her team as it rushed to make a deadline. Only by chance a month later, when she happened to mention those late nights to someone who had been there, did she find out that she had miffed people, who took her unnecessary presence as a sign of distrust. So find ways to get candid feedback. Try as well to find out how working with you shapes how people feel about themselves. Do they typically leave an encounter with you feeling belittled, incompetent? Or do they feel able and confident?
Linda Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, the faculty chair of the Leadership Initiative, and author of Becoming a Manager. Her latest book is called Being the Boss. Linda has chaired numerous HBS Executive Education programs, including the Young Presidents’ Organization Presidents’ Seminar and the High Potentials Leadership Program. She is a former faculty chair of the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School, and she was coursehead during the development of the new Leadership and Organizational Behavior MBA required course. Professor Hill is a member of the Boards of Directors of State Street Corporation, Cooper Industries, and Harvard Business Publishing.