How to be a better boss

By on September 3, 2013

The busier you are, the more likely it is you’ll get into bad management habits. But mending your ways requires taking an honest look at yourself to understand how and why you behave as you do.

As managers, we like to think we are doing a good job but, if we are being truthful with ourselves, we know there are things we could do better, especially in terms of how we get the most out of our employees.

What employees want is challenging work, space, support, and recognition. Do you consistently provide these things to all your employees?

My guess is sometimes you do, but at other times you lapse back into less desirable behaviours such as micromanaging, selfishness, or inattentiveness.

Why don’t we do what we know we should? We are too busy, we have conflicting priorities, and our employees have such different needs that it is hard to keep them all happy.

But there is much more going on here as well. The so-called knowing-doing gap is a pervasive problem, even with managers who have plenty of time and few direct reports. I think there are two linked explanations for this.

One is that many managers don’t truly, deeply believe in the importance of giving their employees lots of space, or coaching them, or providing proper feedback.

The other explanation is that we don’t turn knowledge into action. Just like losing weight or exercising more, there are aspects of good management that we know we should do, but other things just keep on getting in the way. We lack the self-control to do what we know we should.

To become a better manager, you need to develop self-awareness, so that you are more conscious of the less-than-rational ways in which you often behave. Armed with these insights, you can then develop a set of techniques and tricks to help you change your behaviour.


Why do we behave the way we do?

There is mounting evidence that we are all behaviourally flawed. We have biases and shortcomings in the way we process information and in how we act on it. These biases detract from our ability to take the rational or smart course of action in a particular situation.

Behavioural economics tries to make sense of the weird and wonderful ways in which the human brain works. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and founding father of this field of research, says that problems stem from the fact that we have two parallel systems in our minds:

  • System 1 operates automatically, with little or no effort. We can detect hostility in a voice, drive a car on an empty road, or understand simple sentences, without any sense of voluntary control.
  •  System 2 requires the conscious allocation of mental effort. If we want to check the validity of a logical argument, monitor the appropriateness of our behaviour in a social situation, or tell someone our phone number, we have to pay careful attention to the task in hand.


These two parallel systems have been characterised in many different ways: the doer and the planner; the emotional and the rational; the id and the superego; and the elephant and the rider. For most of us, management is an unnatural act. We know what good management looks like, but it takes a lot of conscious effort to follow through on it.

I think it is useful to break good management down into two linked sets of principles: letting go, which means giving up power to others, sharing information and letting people make mistakes; and giving credit to others, which means recognising their achievements and looking for ways to enrich their work.

Sitting above these two sets of principles is a third principle we can call self-control, which means making the right trade-offs and choices among competing alternatives.

Letting go

One of the hallmarks of a good manager is the capacity to let go – to give power and freedom to others, to share information freely and willingly, and to allow people to make mistakes. But it is human nature to hold on to power and to hoard valuable information.

So what can you do to be more effective and more consistent in letting go?

The starting point, as always, is to get it clear in your own head why giving your employees freedom is the right approach. Here are four techniques I have observed and experimented with over the years to help us become better at letting go.


The third principle of good management is self-control – the ability to regulate your own emotions and instincts. As we have seen, good management is often about overcoming your natural instincts, but not always.

There are times when an emotional response is more powerful than a rational one, and there are some situations where a ‘gut’ decision is better than the one reached through careful analysis. So if the two previous principles were essentially about downplaying your instincts, this one is about learning how to strike a balance.

Let’s be clear: self-control as I am describing it here is hard to achieve. In many situations, we don’t have time to metaphorically stand back and decide how we will respond. Moreover, if we behave in a way that doesn’t look natural to those around us, we come across as devious.

So the message is not to abandon your natural style of working. Rather, it is to be sufficiently knowledgeable about the benefits and limitations of your natural style so that you can catch yourself before you make a blunder.

When your sat-nav proposes a route in a town that you know well, do you follow it? Or do you take a different route, because you believe you know better?

After experimenting with this, I quickly reached two conclusions: (1) if I always follow the GPS route, I occasionally get into trouble; (2) if I choose my own route, I occasionally come out ahead, but usually find myself lost or following an inferior route.

These insights have led me to the following strategy: whenever I believe I know a better route than the one the GPS is suggesting, I ask myself, on what basis? If I know there has been an accident, or bad traffic, things the GPS cannot possibly be factoring in, then I go with my choice.

However, if I cannot make a rational case to myself, then I (reluctantly) follow the GPS advice.

Overcoming our natural instincts

The world of business is filled with managers like you who are seeking to become more effective in their work. However, the evidence suggests the gap between what we want to achieve and what we are able to achieve is as big as ever.

I spend a lot of time working with companies on these issues and one of the interventions I often get involved in is small-scale experiments. Very often, the experiment is a success, but the real insight ends up being: so why don’t we just do this stuff anyway?

Lack of time and resources are only part of the story. I think the underlying problem is that so many aspects of good management involve going against our natural instincts.

We have to work very hard to overcome our need for control and our bias for self-aggrandisement. We also have to be very self-aware to realise when our behavioural flaws are getting in the way.

There are no simple solutions here, but I hope this essay has offered some useful tips and tricks to help you be more aware of your own shortcomings and more thoughtful about ways of overcoming them.

This is an edited extract from Becoming a Better Boss: Why good management is so difficult by Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategic and international management at London Business School. It is published this month by Jossey-Bass.

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