How to get the best out of your team

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The skills that make you into a great boss are the same ones that facilitate an engaging culture

It’s well known that the primary reason people quit a job is dissatisfaction with their immediate boss. Or stated the other way round: your company might be struggling and your pay might be mediocre but if you have an inspiring and dynamic boss you will likely stick around – and go the extra mile for them as well.

So how can you become that great boss? We recently conducted a survey of more than 15,000 workers worldwide to tackle this question, and we have pulled their answers together in a book, Mind Tools for Managers.

Three overall findings stand out. First, managing well is an 'unnatural act' for most of us – it goes against our innate desire to be in control and the centre of attention, and it requires an emphasis on people management that we rarely need in lower-level jobs.

Second, there is no quick fix. Becoming a great boss requires lots of hard work and a vast and diverse array of skills. We separate these skills into four areas: Know and Manage Yourself, Manage Tasks and Get Things Done, Work with and Manage Other People, and General Commercial Awareness. You cannot excel as a manager until you are good in all four areas.

Third, don’t get seduced by the leadership mystique (the notion that people are inspired by Churchillian rhetoric and personal charisma). Real management work, for the vast majority of us, is much more prosaic. It is about providing clear goals, giving people the space and support they need, overcoming obstacles, and building personal empathy.

Here are a few specific tips to help you attract the best and brightest, and just as importantly keep them from leaving.

Learn to listen carefully and intensely to employees

In our survey 66% of managers thought careful listening was key to understanding and motivating people. But this doesn’t just happen. You have to structure opportunities for this into your day. And you have to work on active listening; where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words another person is saying but the complete message being sent.

Give effective praise and recognition

Fifty-five per cent of respondents saw giving praise as one of the most important attributes of a boss. This isn’t so difficult, but you do have to consciously make time for it. And remember to be specific about what you’re praising and do it in an appropriate way – some people love public praise while others are embarrassed by it.

Help people develop self-confidence

People want to feel good about their abilities and they want to be successful at work. One useful strategy is creating 'mastery experiences' for them – setting small goals so they can demonstrate they have mastered a skill, then progressively moving on to harder challenges.

Learn how to give good feedback

Sixty-seven per cent of respondents thought giving high-quality feedback was a priority. But it’s very easy to give feedback badly. The trick is to do it frequently, maybe as much as once a week for direct reports, rather than saving it all for the dreaded annual review and to give more positive feedback than negative. With negative feedback stick to hard facts, and don’t generalise.

Handle poor performance right away. Don’t let it fester

One weak team member puts a lot of pressure on others, which can cause high performers to leave. No wonder that we found 58% of survey respondents rating this issue as highly important. Speedy action is key here, but it’s also important to tackle the right facet of the problem – is it about lack of motivation or lack of capability? This is where empathy and proper understanding of what makes your people tick comes to the fore.

The skills that make you into a great boss are, almost by definition, the same ones that facilitate an engaging culture. This is the Holy Grail for any company, especially when the talent war starts heating up. No company can outperform competitors if its employees don’t want to be there.

Julian Birkinshaw is professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School. James Manktelow is CEO of Mind Tools

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