Overcome the odds to become a great boss

Remember that the people who work for you are human

Credit: Edmon De Haro

Ann L. McGill

Ann L. McGill | Aug 13, 2019

How many of us have at some point fantasized about being a boss? While sitting in traffic, perhaps, or standing in the shower, have you ever thought about what it would be like if you were the one in charge?

I ask this question frequently. At parties, for example—to which, oddly, I’m often not invited back. Still, people answer, and their answer is generally yes. People fantasize quite a bit about being a boss. And invariably their fantasies have them being a GOOD boss: visionary and motivating, beloved and respected.

People want so much to do a good job of being in charge that in their free moments, when they could be fantasizing about much more fun things—say, having a flying car, sailing the Greek islands, or even just getting a full night’s sleep—they are
instead noodling away about leadership and supervision.

What’s perhaps more stunning is not just that people are fantasizing about being a great boss; it’s that it is just that: a fantasy, about as likely as a flying car, or maybe even less so. 

Studies across the world commonly reveal that the vast majority of employees are disengaged from their jobs in ways that are enormously costly to companies via low performance and high turnover. And the reason for people’s misery and poor performance? It’s not the work itself, it’s not the pay, and it’s not the open floor plan—although almost no one likes that.

Nope, it’s the boss.

So what on earth is going on? Why do people want to do well, so much so that they are fantasizing about it, yet fail so badly when they get the chance to lead? And how can you fix it? How can you avoid being that boss?

I will suggest two reasons people fall short.

One is that we are not very good psychologists. When you think about it, that seems odd: we observe people all our lives. In fact, we are people all our lives! You would think we would have inside knowledge about how to lead others. 

But, alas, no. It turns out that our intuitions about human psychology aren’t great. For example, we berate employees for falling short, instead of praising them for doing well, because we mistakenly believe that punishing them for poor performance will put fire in their bellies and that cheering them on for doing well will make us seem soft or silly. The result is employees who are more afraid to do much of anything for fear of being yelled at than they are fired up to act.

Asking employees to function as robots leads them to fall short and quit or, worse, to snap in ways that hurt our business and then quit.

Or we proffer more pay and expensive perks in an effort to retain our best people, thinking that’s all that matters in a transactional, serious work environment, when what people also want, what they want profoundly, is recognition and a sense that their work is meaningful.

Those incentives, incidentally, are not costly to give. We spend too much money with too little impact because of our flawed intuitions.

But I am also going to suggest a second, deeper problem that knowledge of human psychology won’t fix, because to apply human psychology, you first need to think of those working for you as human. And many bosses don’t—not fully, not consistently. 

They, like all of us, dehumanize others.

What do I mean?

Dehumanization involves thinking someone does not have the full range of mental capabilities we associate with people. Sometimes, we view others as being a bit like animals, who are able to feel things just fine but not to think effectively. This happens, for example, when we see laborers as akin to plow horses and are a little surprised when we see them reading. Other times, we view others as being a bit like robots, who can think, at least in a routinized way, but not feel.

No wonder we are such ineffective bosses, misaligned with how people are: we don’t think they are people.

What gets in the way of seeing others as fully human?

Well, of course, classism, sexism, and racism all carry with them a degree of dehumanization, usually of the animalistic sort. Think of the ways people treat women as lesser beings who are to be loved and protected, sort of like superpets, but not as people with agency and the capacity for leadership. 

At work, though, there are also triggers that send us down the other path of dehumanization. I will highlight just two.

One trigger is smart technology, or artificial intelligence. In breakout work by Hye-young Kim, who received her PhD from Chicago Booth in June, we have learned that the more we engage with smart technology, the less we see others as fully human. The way this happens is a bit complex, but the simple explanation is that as we increasingly see machines as being similar to people, we begin seeing people as similar to machines. The machines gain capabilities in the comparison, but, interestingly, people lose.

This dehumanization can lead to mistaken expectations of robotic behavior from employees. Think about not only warehouse workers wearing diapers because bosses don’t view them as humans who need bathroom breaks, but also production workers asked to do mind-numbing, impossibly repetitive tasks, or frontline service employees who are expected to be relentlessly cheerful under circumstances in which no human possibly could. (Face it, the customer is not always right, much as we like to say so. In fact, the customer can sometimes be maddeningly rude.)

Asking employees to function as robots in these ways or in these circumstances leads them to fall short and quit or, worse, to snap in ways that hurt our business and then quit.

It is possible to balance respect and warmth with grace. Do not run scared from leadership by creating a cold and distant workplace.

Another working-world trigger of dehumanization is the lack of a distinct identity. Once people are seen as being generic, one just like the other, it’s only a short step to seeing them as being akin to robots. And that is exactly what happens at work, where we downplay individuality and difference. We put people in uniforms, or we ask them to adopt the uniform look of the company or industry. We ask them to be good team players, by which we too often mean “the same as everyone else.” We freak out and sputter in the face of diversity.

This forced or favored sameness leads us back again to having unrealistic and costly expectations of our “robot” employees. They’re not happy, and we stumble as bosses because we fail to see these people as, well, people.

So I will offer two pieces of advice to all the bosses out there, and to all who hope to be a boss.

First, to be a better boss, remember those folks who work for you are fully human.

To remind yourself of your employees’ humanity, ask questions about things only people, not technological devices, have or can do. Ask about their emotions, their experiences, and their aspirations.

Let your employees be whole, yes, even at work. Allow them to be individuals and not generic examples of a type.

Admittedly, you will need to be sophisticated about taking this advice—that is, to uncover and support others’ humanity without being creepy and intrusive, or worse. In a world where jerks have abused power, you might be tempted to step away from people, not toward them. You may think it safer to downplay anything resembling a human connection—especially with people who are different than you or for whom you are worried about “how it might look.”

Still, it is possible to balance respect and warmth with grace. Do not run scared from leadership by creating a cold and distant workplace. Seeing others as fully human should help.

Second, to be a better boss, remember your own humanity.

How? Be whole. Bring all of yourself to your working world, your competence and your kindness. Don’t playact at being that diminished person: the unfeeling, badass boss. That bit of self-dehumanization is make-believe, and it shows. Plus, to solve complex problems, to take wholly new opportunities, to read your customers and clients accurately, and to inspire those you lead, you will need the capabilities of a complete human mind. Don’t leave part of it at home each workday morning.

By taking this advice, by both seeing human and being human, you may become something almost mythical: the Great Boss.

Ann L. McGill is the Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing, and Behavioral Science at Chicago Booth. This essay is adapted from her address given at the 2019 Chicago Booth Graduation Ceremony this past June.