Here is a pair of questions that almost invariably provide an immediate and emotional response: “Who was the best boss you ever worked for?” and “Why?”

Over the course of the past few years, I have asked all kinds of people these two simple questions and incorporated them into my business interactions with clients.

One of the most powerful stories came from “Sharon,” a C-Level executive for a multibillion-dollar manufacturing company.

“Up until a couple of years ago, I was thinking about retirement,” Sharon told me. “It wasn’t that I was ready to stop working. I just couldn’t have the impact that I knew I was capable of. The previous CEO never really saw me as someone who was important to the strategic success of the business. Following the CEO’s lead, the senior leadership team treated me the same way. I was a woman in a man’s world and a non-engineer in engineering world.”

However, when the CEO retired, and a new leader was elevated to the top spot. Sharon’s career was reborn.

“Everything changed with our new CEO, ‘John,’” she said. “My first conversation with him was extraordinary. He told me that I wasn’t contributing like he knew I could, and it was time for a shift.”

With the new CEO’s report, Sharon began leading important projects, became actively engaged in executive team meetings and, in short, began making a big impact on the business. As Sharon concluded her story, she began to cry as she told me:

“It’s amazing. My old boss saw me for what I wasn’t. John saw me for who I was and what I could do. And I have never looked back.”

Best Boss Study

Fueled by the positive energy generated from these stories and interactions, I collaborated with two colleagues, Dr. Toni Pristo and John Furcon, both organizational psychologists, to conduct a study of Best Boss experiences. We created a questionnaire of seven open-ended questions and invited about 60 seasoned executives, managers and professions to share their stories.

Our content analysis of these replies yielded both expected and unexpected findings. First, we identified five leadership dimensions consistently identified in Best Boss experience:

1. Lead from a Higher Purpose. The Best Boss demonstrates a purpose beyond self and/or organizational interests by taking positive action on behalf of the direct report through an authentic relationship.

2. Activate Potential. The Best Boss observes, values, acknowledges and takes steps to activate the present capability and future potential of the individual.

3. Promote Dynamic Autonomy. The Best Boss imparts organizational knowledge and big picture thinking, establishes clear expectations and creates an autonomous space for the individual to perform.

4. Provide Pervasive Feedback. The Best Boss doesn’t miss an opportunity to provide constructive and reinforcing feedback.

5. Inspire Continuous Learning. The Best Boss acknowledges the inevitability of mistakes with a direct report, encourages discussion of them when they occur and ensures lessons are mined for immediate learning.

Our data indicate these dimensions did not operate independently but were key ingredients of a wholistic “best boss” leadership process. The dimensions work in concert to engage, motivate, develop and, perhaps most importantly, drive better performance on the part of the direct report. Of note, we found that the “Activates Potential” component was mentioned in 53% of the responses — by far the most of any dimension — proving to be the most significant linchpin for the “best boss” framework.

Relationships and Characteristics

In addition to the five dimensions, we learned of two critical elements that were essential in building a foundation that allowed the “best boss” process to thrive. Relationships could be one- or multi-dimensional (e.g., collegial, personal, mentoring, learning partnership, etc.), but in every case, a strong relationship was formed between the “best boss” and the individual. This had a powerful and lasting impact on the individual’s self-confidence, personal development, sense of empowerment, job performance (both quantitative and qualitative) and life perspective. In several instances, this personal relationship continued for decades, long after the formal boss-direct report relationship had ended.

And while no two Best Bosses had the same constellation of characteristics, each brought a collection of personal attributes that enhanced the interpersonal relationship between the employee and boss. From the scores of traits mentioned, we did identify seven themes that respondents used to describe their Best Bosses:

1. Humble, unassuming and authentic.
2. Bright; very smart.
3. Positive, optimistic, “can do” attitude.
4. Fair and ethical.
5. Demonstrates a sense of humor and fun.
6. Thoughtful and thorough.
7. Respectful.

The Best Boss Impact

Through our data analysis, nearly all (93%) of our study respondents suggested their performance excelled, 82% felt a strong engagement in their work and about three-quarters (76%) saw a positive impact on their career and / or skill development while working for their Best Boss. Take a moment to contrast this data with the following external findings from Gallup (2017) and you can begin to appreciate the organizational influence Best Boss leaders have on performance, engagement and retention:

  • One in two U.S adults have left their job to get away from their manager and improve their overall life at some point in their career.
  • Managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units. This means the majority of impact on engagement has the boss as its main source.

In all honesty, it wasn’t surprising to discover people achieved more or had increased engagement while working for a Best Boss. However, it become clear that there was more at play than a simple working relationship between two people. Best Bosses taught others how to lead, leaving “people leadership legacies” in their wake. Their influence also transcended organizational boundaries because Best Bosses not only helped individuals become better employees, they also helped them become better people.

Perhaps most importantly, there is mounting evidence that the relationship with your boss can impact your health. According to the American Psychological Society, for 75% of employees, the most stressful part of their job is their immediate boss. The 2019 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health Journal found that employees who did not trust their boss had were more likely to have four or more cardiovascular disease risk factors. This stress is leaving a negative mark on our collective health.

On the positive side, in 2015 the University of Michigan found six qualities of a healthy workplace culture that directly align with the Best Boss Leadership dimensions, characteristics and behaviors:

  • Caring for, being interested in and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends.
  • Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling.
  • Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes.
  • Inspiring each other at work.
  • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work.
  • Treating each other with respect, gratitude, trust and integrity.

Final Thought

If you are a corporate executive, business owner, human resources leader, senior public administrator or simply someone’s supervisor, you are able to bring the extraordinary power of Best Boss leadership to your organization. At a time when work and career rules are changing dramatically, organizations need next-level leaders with Best Boss characteristics more than ever.

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