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This is the secret to transform a bad boss into an effective leader

Equipping leaders with a mastery of critical people skills through simulation and practice is key.

This is the secret to transform a bad boss into an effective leader
[Source illustration: Bitter/Getty Images]

We’ve all heard about them, and many have had the unfortunate experience of working for them—a bad boss who creates a negative environment for those around them. Fortunately, there is something that can be done to help transform an ineffective manager into a leader, or weed out those who simply don’t have leadership potential at the start. 

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But what exactly constitutes a bad boss? We’ve found they share similar on-the-job characteristics.

  • They don’t empower employees to have full autonomy. In fact, they’re micromanagers who peer over their employees’ shoulders, not trusting them to do their task. 
  • They fail to provide feedback, whether praise or opportunities for improvement. They solely provide negative feedback and miss the opportunity to motivate and coach. As their purpose is to drive employees—not sharing what the employees do well, not acknowledging them for a job well done—it leaves the employee feeling beaten, as if a failure. That, in turn, impacts engagement, performance, and a general lack of satisfaction. 

Leadership can fall short in its mission to uplift and provide support and direction to employees in other ways. That can be exacerbated by the lack of critical conversation skills. And, while a common trait in high-performing people is drive, when the high level of drive is not matched with a high level of emotional intelligence and empathy, it can lead to problems. So can a boss focusing too much on actively managing a team rather than on developing high performers so they can truly delegate.

We’ve also seen instances where managers withhold information from their employees due to a power struggle or ego, which then trickles down to employees not sharing with their colleagues and/or customers. Employees are left asking themselves, “Who should I trust?” A toxic environment ensues, one that leads to attrition, of particular concern with the Great Resignation underway. Individuals are less forgiving of bad bosses. “One bad encounter and I’m out” is the modus operandi of the day. 

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A “good boss” defined

While you’d think that a high performer in one area would manifest the same level of ability in another area, that is often not the case. Research suggests that promotion is normally based on past performance but as someone’s role changes, there is no guarantee that the skills that made them successful in the prior role are the skills that they need in the new role. This is particularly true when people are promoted from individual contributors to manager roles. As the Peter Principle states, “It is the tendency for every employee to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach a level of respective incompetence.”

What, then, goes into the making of a good leader? Psychological safety, for one. “Praise in public; [give] feedback in private” is an adage cited by many as a good rule of thumb for leaders. What’s more, everyone’s voice must be heard without fear of retribution or judgment. Being listened to and ensuring that individuals can raise issues that would otherwise fall through the cracks is essential to psychological safety.

Leadership also requires the ability to show humility and make mistakes. If you’re not confident in yourself, there’s insecurity, and that results in problems. Leaders require agility, empathy, and humility. Divergent thinking, learning acumen, and curiosity are also essential leadership skills in today’s workplace.

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Often the objective of a boss is to remove roadblocks for team members, to provide structure for issues with customers, the team or product, as quickly and efficiently as possible. To do this, some companies are curating new skills, like curiosity and divergent thinking, to bring new approaches and more innovation into the business. These types of skills are new to leadership programs. There are several ways to boost these new skills—role play, experience on the job, and immersive simulations.

Gaining leadership skills

In some cases, especially in traditional workplaces, unlearning and developing new behaviors is key. Yet that can be hard and requires practice. Leadership requires that you learn every day, yet you can’t learn without practicing in realistic workplace situations.

Role plays are an essential part of leadership development, but it can be hard to run them at scale, and consistently. Making them realistic takes a great deal of setup and is rarely possible to do in a way that program owners wish. Add to that the pressure on leaders to always be right and always perform, and it makes learning difficult. With conventional training, employees just don’t want to sit through long, daunting, heavy content during their work day. They simply can’t retain large chunks of information, especially if a great deal of it isn’t relevant to their role. Even well-trained and motivated employees sometimes struggle to apply their new knowledge and skills when they return to their units. Another shortcoming of conventional training—it’s often designed for knowledge acquisition versus skill application. 

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Providing realistic situations in the form of immersive simulations helps overcome these issues as they’re easy to scale and can be high quality. They’re consistent and allow practice and reflection. There is no live instructor involved, yet they provide just-in-time coaching and feedback in psychologically safe environments for learning to take place. A big point of difference is the data that simulations supply. You simply can’t groom leaders and give the right support without data showing where their gaps and strengths are.

Case in point: A large California-based utilities company partnered with ETU (where the coauthor of this piece John Fallon is director of product marketing), an immersive learning solutions provider, to assess potential leaders and understand their strengths and weaknesses. With data in hand, they assessed their overall bench strength and now can make decisions on the level of external hiring needed, and whether they need to invest in training to help employees fill roles. 

Another example is when one of the Big Four professional services firms overhauled the way managers were having conversations with team members to boost the relationship. These developmental conversations allowed people managers to say to their team members, “Let me help you where you want to go,” and “You might need more experience in this area; let’s get you skilled for this.” The culture shift used simulations to practice conversations, ensuring the managers the chance to try out words in different realistic conversations, and get immediate feedback on how they would be received.  

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Lincoln Financial (where coauthor Ebony McClinton is a senior talent consultant) also saw great results from using immersive simulation in its Leadership Lab. The first phase saw 140 employees complete immersive simulation training for coaching/feedback and crucial conversations. Responses from participants included many stating how real the simulations were, and that they had the opportunity to go in and apply critical thinking before making a decision. Just-in-time coaching came right behind each simulation, with resources they could use and take back to the team.

While many leadership programs run business simulations based on pulling operational and financial levers to improve business performance, equipping leaders with mastery of critical people skills through simulation and practice is key to transforming bad boss behaviors to effective leadership behaviors. 

Ebony McClinton, DSL  is a senior talent consultant at Lincoln Financial Group and a professional certified coach and executive mentor. John Fallon  is a director of product marketing at ETU. 

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