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5 simple ways to be a good boss

Manager and his secretary-typist. Paris. On 1927.Manager and his secretary-typist. Paris. On 1927.

Dear Annie: I’m turning to you and your readers because, frankly, I’ve been all over the Internet researching my question and now I’m totally overwhelmed. The thing is, I just graduated from college at the end of May and I’ve never even had a “real” job before (just internships). But I’m now working for a small company where they immediately put me in charge of a team of eight people.

The technical side of it doesn’t worry me at all—I was hired because of something I invented and patented during my senior year, which we’re now developing into a new product line—but the management part is keeping me awake nights. I’ve had no training at all in how to be a boss, and I think people can tell I’m just sort of faking it. Do you have any suggestions? — Amateur Hour

Dear A.H.: It’s no wonder the Internet has left you overwhelmed. Google “management” and, as you probably already know, you get 749,000,000 hits. Happily, that’s way more than you need. As you get further along in your career, you’ll no doubt discover the many and varied ways that managers can be terrible at their jobs but, for now, says Noelle Nelson, you really only need to do five things.

Nelson, a clinical psychologist, bases her list on the research she did for her e-book, Got a Bad Boss? Work That Boss to Get What You Want at Work. To some extent, it’s a matter of “looking at what really bad bosses do, and then doing the opposite,” Nelson says. Her five basic ways to get off to a strong start:

Offer to help, and accept help when you need it. “A bad boss will never help others, or ask for help. He’s too insecure,” Nelson notes. “He doesn’t want to appear as if he doesn’t have all the answers or he fears that, if he helps someone to succeed, that person will get all the credit.”

Do your best on your own, of course, but “when you need a hand with something, don’t hesitate to ask,” she says. “At the same time, help others willingly and graciously, with no strings attached and without making people feel indebted to you as a result. This will earn you the respect you’ll need on your way up.”

If you have to give negative feedback, do it in private. “A bad boss has no problem with yelling at someone in front of everyone,” Nelson observes. “She may think she’s showing her authority, but in fact, criticizing people publicly is a sign of an incompetent manager.” Employee evaluations, especially less-than-stellar ones, are “not a spectator sport.”

Take criticism as an opportunity to learn. Because bad bosses are insecure, they aren’t open to suggestions about how to do things smarter, faster, or cheaper. But a “my way or the highway” attitude will usually discourage people from telling you about problems and setbacks, until it’s too late to fix them and you’re up to your elbows in alligators.

Avoid that. “There will be times, no matter how well you think things are going, that someone will tell you they’re not,” notes Nelson. “Listen up, glean as much useful information as you can, and then put your entire focus on doing better.”

Leave your personal life at home. “A bad boss will often inject way too many details of his or her private life into the workplace. But the office isn’t the place for group therapy,” Nelson says. “It’s important to set boundaries, so that everyone’s attention is where it belongs—on the task at hand.”

If someone on your team is distracted by a personal problem, “you need to have an open-door policy, where people feel they can talk to you, and to be compassionate,” she adds. “But your role should be to refer team members to professional help, and not to get personally involved. If you become everyone’s buddy and confidant, your authority as the boss is undermined.”

Don’t gossip. Ever. “Bad bosses never think twice about spreading rumors, especially nasty ones, if that’s advantageous to them,” Nelson observes. “But gossip is not only hurtful and destructive, it’s a waste of your time and energy—and the company’s—and does nothing to accomplish your goals.”

One more thought that might help: You mention that you think your team members can tell you’re “kind of faking it.” That’s not necessarily bad. A new survey of 1,010 employees by Sandler Training, whose coaches work mainly with small-to-medium-sized companies (like yours), says 80% agreed with the following statement: “My company expects managers to know how to lead and manage without providing them any formal training.”

In other words, a sink-or-swim approach to putting people in charge is more the norm than the exception, and most people apparently know that. Even so, over 70% of those surveyed said they “like” or “love” their boss, which suggests that, ready or not, it’s possible to be pretty good at this. Good luck.

Talkback: What do you think it takes to be a great boss? Is there anything you wish your boss would do (or not do)? Leave a comment below.

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