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4 types of bosses and how best to manage them, according to science

If we can better understand how managers think, we will be better positioned to work with them as opposed to expecting them to change.

4 types of bosses and how best to manage them, according to science
[Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images]

You have probably struggled dealing with a boss at some point in your life. This is true, even if you are a boss—and chances are your employees can share stories about you on this.

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Most of these problems could be solved with better communication, which, alas, is not the norm. Consider that the latest polls suggest that the inability to effectively communicate with your boss is one of the leading reasons why people become frustrated, burned out, and disengaged at work, which may explain why only 18% of employees were engaged, and just 14% of them trusted senior leaders, before the pandemic (figures are arguably lower now). Combining these findings with the Great Resignation and the switch to hybrid working, leaders need to become aware of how their behavior is perceived and impacts others. 

However, we cannot just wait (or hope) for this to happen. Science shows that the more a leader is self-aware, the more effective that leader is. Unfortunately, estimates suggest that this applies to only 10% of people. There is also the question as to how well people can change their behavior once they have achieved this self-awareness. (Hint: It requires constant effort and motivation.) 

For those of us who would like a more productive (and less stressful) relationship with our bosses, we should take the time to understand their dispositions. If we can better understand how our managers think, we will be better positioned to work with them and meet them where they are, as opposed to expecting them to change.

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Aggregating the findings from hundreds of scientific and peer-reviewed studies, psychologists have identified four dispositions that are most likely to emerge in leaders. In other words, being a boss increases your propensity to display these qualities. 

Outgoing

Outgoing leaders are sociable, relationship focused, and extraverted. At their best, they are great at building new relationships, bringing people together, and communicating inspiring messages. At their most extreme, however, they may come across as unrestrained, overconfident, and attention-seeking. We have all seen it in senior leaders at some point: the uncomfortable moment when they seem incapable of self-restraint, unjustifiably pleased with themselves, and their confidence turns into exhibitionism.

You will know if you have an outgoing manager if they talk over you, if you find them exhausting to be around, and if they have an uncanny ability to always bring the conversation back to them. Extremely outgoing leaders are sociable, but only because they see others as an audience. 

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If you work for an outgoing boss and the above rings true, try the following:

Set and emphasize boundaries around when and how you would like to communicate. The social batteries of outgoing leaders never get tired, so it is important to tell them when you will be online and available to talk. Using features like “do not disturb” or blocking time in your calendar will give you the space to focus on your tasks and do deep work. 

Speak up and create opportunities for your colleagues to have some of the limelight. Outgoing leaders do not intentionally hog all the attention. Rather, they are blissfully unaware that they are doing all the talking. Feel free to interrupt them and invite others to share their thoughts.  They are unlikely to take offense.

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Driven

Driven leaders are energetic, competitive, and ambitious. They are highly effective at persevering, clearing obstacles, and driving new projects forward. These are great qualities when you’re faced with a seemingly insurmountable goal and you need a leader who will do anything to help you achieve it.

However, there is a downside to driven leaders. When things are heated, they can become overly competitive, forceful, and dominant. Indeed, pathological ambition can stand in the way of leaders’ aspirations, running over anyone who stands in their way, including their employees. When they start to look more like a tyrants, driven leaders strain relationships and overwork people.

If you have a driven boss:

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Start using their tenacious and forceful style to your advantage. For example, if you are struggling to get additional resources or buy-in for your ideas, ask your leader to go up and bat for you. If they believe in you and your idea, they won’t stop until they have solved the problem.

Invest the time to find out what motivates them. Once you recognize what they are most passionate about, you can leverage this energy to your own advantage. Learning how to frame up your ambitions so that they are aligned with theirs is an effective way of gaining the autonomy and support you need to make them happen.

Disciplined

Disciplined leaders are methodical, diligent, and organized. They are skilled at building highly detailed plans, efficient processes, and ensuring that every deadline is met. While this talent is consistently correlated with performance, it is a victim to the “too much of a good thing” effect. When taken to its extreme, disciplined leaders become rigid, cautious, and unable to operate without a clear plan. They also have the unfortunate tendency of being micromanagers. 

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Here’s how you can get the most out of having a disciplined leader:

Let them solve the problem. If you need to deliver a piece of work that requires complicated planning with all the nuances addressed, ask your leader for help. Their attention to detail will help you organize your thoughts and generate a robust plan.

Balance your flexibility with their diligence. Sticking to plans and staying organized may not come naturally to you, but it does to them. Ask them to help you stay accountable. The disciplined leader can keep you on track while you inject more flexibility and adaptability into their work.

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Curious

The curious leader is inventive, experimental, and visionary. Curious leaders have a hungry mind. They are fantastic at spearheading creative or entrepreneurial endeavors, or generating new solutions to old or challenging problems. They see what could be, not what is. But this inquisitive and curious disposition can spill over into eccentricity. You know what this looks like: Their ideas are hard to follow, they need to do things differently “just because,” or they are easily excited by new ideas even if it will slow down or get in the way of current goals. 

Try these two things to leverage their curiosity while keeping them grounded:

If you’re struggling to find a solution to a difficult problem, let them know. Curious leaders are naturally creative and will jump at the chance to apply that talent. Don’t waste your time trying to find innovative solutions. Have them point out how things could be done differently and let your more pragmatic mindset work through the details.

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Be the devil’s advocate. Curious leaders can get carried away with their ideas. Help them stay realistic by politely pointing out the gaps in their ideas and the steps that they would need to take to turn them into reality. They will appreciate you doing this as the final decisions will be thoughtful and considered.

A final rule you should consider: It is generally easier to deal with people who are similar to us, especially when it comes to personality. Your ability to manage your boss will increase in proportion to how closely the two of you are in personality. 


Reece Akthar, PhD, is an associate professor of organizational psychology at New York University and the cofounder and CEO of Deeper Signals. His latest book is The Future of Recruitment.

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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, PhD, is the chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of business psychology at Columbia University and University College London. He is the author of  Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It).


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