Ignorance and overconfidence: 13 qualities that make a good boss

“I’m an engineer and a designer.” This is how I like to introduce myself to people, especially in Europe, where the word engineer assumes an interesting touch of mystery, intelligence, and wealth. Generally, it also does a great deal to help make new acquaintances.

However, if you dig a little deeper, the reality stops being so mysterious. I just love programming and drawing interfaces. I really, really love it. So much so that sometimes I get carried away and forget to bill clients for my work.

I’ve been running a small company for almost 10 years now, but at the same time, I’ve always continued to code and design, at least as a hobby.

Over the years, I’ve discovered a peculiarity: you can’t approach the work of a programmer/designer and the work of a manager/director in the same way. You have to, as it were, flip the switch and readjust.

One day, when I was planning a project, I caught myself thinking, “Well, I can do the REST API architecture myself. Meanwhile, I will write the functional requirements and draw a design for the MVP. There isn’t much to it, after all.” Then a voice laughed in my head, “What a tremendous leader you are since you have to do everything yourself.”

Anyway, below is a checklist from my future to my former self that can be used to quickly switch to ‘boss mode’. I hope some of you reading this will find it useful as well. There will be many links to reference literature throughout the article.

1. Ignorance

It doesn’t take a lot of brainpower to create clickbaity headlines for trivial articles. But all the same, it can be useful for a boss to become a little more ignorant, ‘lose’ some of their skills, and ‘forget’ some of their professional knowledge.

This practice will help avoid analysis paralysis (not to be confused with sleep paralysis). In summation, the more a person is inclined to analyze information, and the more data they have, the more difficult it becomes to make a decision. Have you ever had a leader who couldn’t decide on anything? How was your experience working with them?

Here are three more studies that support the idea that over-thinking should be avoided:

1. The introduction of additional information can increase the likelihood of making the wrong decision.

2. People use much less information to make decisions than they think.

3. When you consider yourself to be the smartest person of the group, it becomes difficult to trust the results of others’ work. At the same time, the work that was done under your supervision seems more meaningful to you, even when this is objectively not the case.

2. Overconfidence

Your confidence should be spilling over the proverbial edge: confidence in your success, confidence in your team, and, of course, your self-confidence. A person’s mood and attitude, like herpes, is quite contagious. A boss must have enough confidence to infect all of their colleagues, line managers, and have enough left over to spread among investors and clients.

Moreover, it is not enough to simply feel confident and keep it to yourself. You need to demonstrate it. This is a separate skill in and of itself, and some have a natural talent for it, while others need specialized training to improve it.

Even minute details such as a straight posture, clear voice, smile, calmness, and a direct gaze allow you to influence others effectively. This may sound like a quote from some NLP book, but sometimes this can work better than even the most convincing arguments.

In one of the articles I researched, I came across the definition of “de facto leader”, which is when, despite the presence of a formal boss, all the real decisions in the company are made by one of their subordinates. Such a person has more authority simply because they act with more confidence.

3. Energy

This point has many things in common with confidence. A bad project is one where something unexpected doesn’t happen halfway through. At the same time, a bad leader is one that doesn’t have enough energy to cheer the team up and pull the project out of a hole when it’s landed in one.

But you can’t be super energetic all the time. Emotional troughs always follow the peaks, but you have to somehow get out of them.

There is a simple rule that you need to follow: never, for any reason and under any circumstances, interact with the team if you’re in a bad or sluggish mood.

Get enough sleep, drink coffee, take a walk, shake off the stress, drink coffee, look at some birds, listen to music, and drink more coffee. If all else fails, it’s best to reschedule the meeting.

4. Being honest about problems

People prefer to receive bad news without long introductions. Opening speeches don’t compensate for negativity and usually increase the level of tension instead.

To avoid surprising people with unpleasant conversations, it’s better to lay the groundwork in advance. As early as the job interview, I begin to negotiate the terms of dismissal with the candidate, discuss salary delays, and go over overtime conditions. You should see the look on the face of HR in such moments.

Generally speaking, you just need to be honest. Naturally, there will always be off-limits topics and questions that cannot be answered. This is normal, and the fact that it’s off-limits can also be voiced directly. The concepts of personal and trade secrets still exist, after all.

So what’s it all for? Most people respond to honesty with honesty. If a valuable employee starts to have doubts about working in your company, they are more likely to come to you and have a conversation instead of starting to search for something else behind your back. Consequently, there will be an opportunity to either change their opinion or prepare for their replacement in advance. No one likes to suddenly and unexpectedly lose useful team members.

5. Delegating instead of commanding

Often the word delegation means assigning tasks and controlling their realization. Therefore, it seems like this word discredits itself and it sounds somewhat conniving.

How about the term under full personal responsibility? This way, you don’t just vaguely and obscurely delegate something, but instead, you assign tasks under the manager’s full personal responsibility. After you give such an assignment, the manager has:

  • Complete freedom of action
  • Unconditional authority over their subordinates
  • Unity of command over their subordinates

If you decide to delegate a task directly to the executor and not a manager, the phrase “Do it in such a way that you wouldn’t be ashamed to brag about the results to your friends afterward” often helps. At the same time, it’s important that the person shows initiative and is ready to be solely responsible for the result of their own volition.

Of course, some things simply cannot be delegated. These things are different for every director. Personally, I seldom entrust full responsibility for tasks that are related to money, hiring decisions, or control over important accounts (like a domain).

6. Always working with a plan

Without a plan, people tend to take on small, easily understandable tasks and take deep dives into small details, while simultaneously forgetting about the bigger picture. This creates the illusion of work, although globally, the project is at a standstill. The team directs its energy towards things that don’t bring results, which ultimately leads to the project’s failure.

Planning starts with a goal. For the sake of convenience, this goal can be created per the good old SMART criteria (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound). In product teams, ‘time-bound’ is the hardest part to achieve. Formally, the concept exists, but in reality, deadlines may be constantly postponed and everyone eventually understands that the deadline doesn’t really mean anything. The challenge lies in figuring out how to deal with this as effectively as possible.

Planning can be time-consuming in and of itself. In order to avoid wasting the company’s resources on idle nonsense, it’s worth having a pre-emptive conversation with the team about what they should be doing when there are no prioritized assignments. For example:

  • Close 10 tickets from the backlog of internal projects;
  • Go to a conference and report on what they’ve learned;
  • The best guys are happy to come up with tasks themselves and knock them out for the good of the company;
  • You could agree to give someone an additional day off on the condition that they will work it off during an active phase of the project.

7. Never taking up someone else’s work

Anyone who hasn’t read the famous article “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” really ought to. Since 1974, it has been the Harvard Business Review’s most popular publication. Managers are still stepping on the same old rake by allowing their subordinates to set tasks for them.

Think about it. Every time you listen to an employee’s problem in the break room (in the hallway, by mail, phone, etc.) and promise to help, it suddenly becomes your problem. Figuratively speaking, you are taking care of someone else’s monkey. The employee will easily part with it and then gladly and continually ask you when you will finally solve their problem. On top of that, if you don’t manage to solve it, you’ll also become a bad leader.

Such situations shouldn’t be allowed to happen under any circumstances. You didn’t hire a professional so that you could do their work for them. Therefore, it is critical that you bring on ambitious people to your team that will be ready to show initiative.

5 levels of initiative can be established based on how the employee acts in relation to management:

  1. The employee waits for direct instructions
  2. The employee asks what they should do (or should be doing)
  3. The employee proposes their own plan and then implements it
  4. The employee acts independently and asks for advice throughout the process
  5. The employee acts completely independently and then submits a report on the completed work

I must admit that I haven’t met any IT executives who would be happy to see even a single team member that acts according to the 1st principle. I would say that the 3rd level of initiative is the bare minimum.

8. Never criticizing people for showing initiative

This is taboo, even if the person messed up. You can have a discussion with them about ways to correct the situation or how to avoid such difficulties in the future, but you should never punish them or suppress their initiative.

All in all, any kind of punishment should be completely removed from your arsenal. Just for fun, I tried the “I’m the boss, and you don’t know anything” approach, which gave very short-term results and always ended with someone leaving the team.

9. Making promises and keeping them

People stop trusting those who forget their promises or fail to keep them, but this principle works the other way around just as well. If you systematically keep your word, you will begin to gain more trust from others.

This concept applies even to micro-promises and for even the most trivial of reasons. “This evening, I’ll send you a link to the book I was talking about”, “Yes, let’s go to the cafeteria, I’ll be free in 15 minutes.” Even a postponed meeting will bring you negative karma points. You need to ensure that you always fulfill more promises than you break.

By the way, you shouldn’t surpass expectations in the hopes of gaining respect. Research shows that doing so not only fails to reap positive results but can also lead to the complete opposite effect.

10. Upholding unity of command

Henri Fayol (the father of modern management) wrote about this principle and it is still valid today. If an employee receives assignments from and reports to several managers, it will seldom lead to good results.

Stress, demotivation, diminished loyalty, missed deadlines, and undermined authority are just some of the most obvious consequences. It also becomes clear why it’s so difficult to delegate tasks. When your subordinate has a team of their own, you must give up personal control over it. In the end, what’s more important — work efficiency or your desire to boss someone around?

11. Evaluating based on results

The Halo effect forces us to give a higher rating to people that we like, and a lower one to people we don’t. But employees shouldn’t be judged by parameters like “he’s a great guy”, “I know his mother”, “we have common interests”, “she tried her hardest.” You’re not choosing a spouse here.

If someone fails to do their job properly over and over again, they should be fired.

12. Never delaying dismissal

Nobody likes to fire people, but this isn’t a valid reason to delay the inevitable. The company loses money, the project stands still, and the team sees that its efficiency is dropping, but in order to stop this, you break some bad news to a good person.

Sometimes, you may not even want to fire the person even if he’s an asshole. “He will learn… he will improve” is the fairy tale we tell ourselves just so we don’t seem like the bad guy. If the person is toxic, incompetent, lazy, or all of the above, then there is no need to delay saying goodbye.

There may be times when the person may simply be in the wrong place and may even be dissatisfied with the situation and their position in it. Holding on to such a person is doing a disservice both to them and to yourself.

Ultimately, if the person is rational, you may even wind up teaming up with them once again somewhere down the line. I’ve witnessed such a situation more than once in my life.

13. Voicing your thanks

Everyone loves praise, but praise needs to be deserved. Over time, empty praise amounts to flattery and is simply ignored or not taken seriously by anyone.

I personally have a lot of trouble with this topic. I may think that something is amazing, but say it’s just okay. For people who are dealing with the same problem, there are some tips:

  • Showing the results of someone’s work in action is also a form of praise. People like to know that what they’re doing serves a purpose and that their work is in demand
  • If you decide to give someone a bonus, you need to personally tell the person about this decision, instead of just asking an accountant to transfer the money on the down-low
  • It is necessary to publicly voice who took part in the work and to do it as often as possible
  • And obviously, just say “thanks” out loud and in front of witnesses

The article was written by Denis Elianovsky.

Thanks to Stanislav Lushin and Tatiana Kitaeva for their help and editing, to Elena Efimova for the picture in the header, and Pavel Chernetsov for the English translation. Made by opium.pro

CDO at Russian TOP-50 IT Supplier for Banks denis@opium.pro