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Career tip: It’s easy to be a tough boss; it’s tough to be a good boss February 26, 2010

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.
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Everyone has experience of a tough, “no nonsense” supervisor. They rule their domain and expect everyone to follow their commands. Work gets done. But is this an effective and efficient way to run an organization?

Such a boss often penalizes less-than-expected work much more than they reward or recognize exceptional work. The response from most workers under such a system is moderate and even tentative. Fear of reprimands is common, while aiming for rewards is rare. Workers learn to do what is comfortable and safe, not doing anything that might draw the ire of the boss.

If you are running certain businesses, this system works nearly as well as most others. But in science, in running a laboratory, it leads to mediocrity. When people become timid and afraid of making a mistake, they pull back. In research this means only doing safe experiments that have little chance of failure, and little chance of any breakthroughs. In other lab settings, this leads to people doing more minimalistic work. Their insecurity leads to only doing what is expected.

Toughness need not be avoided in order to get more from a team. It only has to be selectively used when needed. Poor performance sometimes needs to be addressed by a tougher attitude than that the errors or low performance are due to inexperience, poor training, limited resources, and so on. If a person who ought to be able to perform at a certain level consistently does not, and motivation by better pay, awards, or recognition have no affect, then a more forceful and direct approach might be used.

A poor performance review ought to be a rarity, with lots of average or good ones and the exceptional great one. That way people see that you are consistent and fair, you do not either give everyone low reviews or high ones.

But it ought not to be the first tool pulled out of a supervisor’s toolbox. Relying on other approach at first can be very difficult, but you can always use toughness. You cannot inspire or motivate later if toughness is not totally effective. Also, if you use toughness effectively, its impact is great because you obvious displeasure shows up stronger.

In being tough, you need to understand the psychology. Many “bad” bosses do not understand that taking someone to task in a team meeting or in a public place, like in a laboratory full of coworkers; will not gain as much improvement as it does resentment and antagonism. Nobody likes being made to look bad in front of others, even if it is deserved. Making someone an example only builds fear and timidity in the group. These emotions do not make for good science.

Yelling is never a good way to communicate, either. If you are forceful and clear in the situation and your intentions, the message that better work is required will be hear clearly.

When the person shows the desired improvements, praise him or her for the effort – but remember to phrase that so that the new performance is seen as the new average, not some exceptionally high level.

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