What makes a popular boss?

Think of the best boss you’ve ever had. If you could choose just one word to describe that person, what would that word be?

Several months ago, I hired independent research company Galaxy Research to pose that question to more than 1000 people over the phone. The respondents weren’t given a menu of options to choose from, and didn't have to list reasons. Instead, they were free to select any word from their own vocabulary that most accurately encapsulated their best boss.

The research resulted in a wide range of words. There were the obvious, such as ‘inspirational’ and ‘trusting’; the unexpected, such as ‘intimidating’ and ‘cheap’; the vague, such as ‘great’ and ‘normal’; the political, such as ‘unionist’ and ‘liberal’; and the unusual, such as ‘Christian’ and ‘Irish’.

Here are the top five most popular characteristics - and examples of a few academic studies for those who have yet to be convinced. (To download the full report, click here.)

1. Fair

So, this is in top spot. A fair boss is a best boss. But how do people determine what’s fair and what’s not?

Researchers at New Zealand University ran an experiment in which participants were told that two equally deserving patients had to share one dialysis machine. Then, the participants were given a letter by the CEO dictating how much time they had to allocate to each patient. Afterwards, they rated the CEO’s fairness.

In some cases, the participants were told that both patients were lifelong New Zealanders, but in other cases they were told that one of the patients was a recent immigrant.

When both patients were kiwis, the CEO was deemed to be fair when he equally distributed the patients’ time on the machine. But when one of the patients was a foreigner, the CEO was rated as unfair if he asked for the amount of time to be distributed equally.

What this indicates is that people’s perception of fairness is heavily influenced by how much they personally benefit – or by how much the ‘in-group’ of which they’re a member benefits – from a decision.

And that’s not really fair.

2. Compassionate

Some leaders, especially those new to the job, assume that compassion becomes less necessary the higher up they progress on the corporate ladder. Not so.

When the Johnson Graduate School of Management ran a survey of Fortune 1000 executives, they discovered compassion was perceived as a vital ingredient for leadership success. It even beat other attributes, such as competitiveness and intelligence, as the characteristic that organisations needed for the future. Team building was the only one that scored higher.

3. Understanding

In their book Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe posit that many of us confuse knowledge with understanding. Just because we know someone doesn’t mean we understand them.

Empathy is a core part of understanding, and in fascinating research conducted by a trio of American universities (Northwestern, New York, and Stanford), the researchers wanted to see how much empathy was present in people who hold positions of power.

They ran a series of experiments, one of which involved showing people images of faces that expressed one of four emotions: happiness, fear, anger, or sadness. The participants were then asked to state which emotion was being expressed.

The outcome revealed that powerful people were less able to detect others’ emotions and were subsequently less likely to be empathetic. In their report, the researchers concluded that people with power had “a reduced tendency to comprehend how others see the world, how others think about the world, and how others feel about the world”.

4. Honest

Closely linked to honesty is a management theory known as ‘self-concept maintenance’. It describes the actions of people who behave dishonestly enough to gain an advantage of some sort, while simultaneously acting honestly enough in other areas to delude themselves into thinking they’re a person of integrity.

It raises the ethical question: is it OK to lie sometimes? Some would say that, yes, it’s fine to lie at work so long as there’s an overall net benefit to the organisation. Others, of course, would disagree. One of those would be Socrates, the moral philosopher: “The greatest way to live with honour in this world is to be what we pretend to be.” And that would be honest.

5. Supportive

The benefits of a supportive boss were demonstrated in a 20-year study at Tel Aviv University. The researchers wanted to find out whether an unsupportive workplace was more likely to contribute to an employee’s death. In particular, they looked at the degree to which employees could say their supervisor helps them solve problems and the extent to which they’re available for consultation.

The results showed that people who felt as though they had minimal support at work were twice as likely to die than their well-supported colleagues.

Over to you. What word would you use to describe the best boss you've ever had?

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This story What makes a popular boss? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.