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OWNER'S MANUAL

7 Unusual Things Great Bosses Do

Great bosses do these things. The rest don't--because these simple gestures would never occur to them.
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Where employees are concerned, great leaders don't take. Great leaders give--especially these seven things:

They give a glimpse of vulnerability.

To employees, you're often not a person. You're a boss. (Kind of like when you were in school and you saw a teacher at the grocery store; it was jarring and uncomfortable because teachers weren't people. They were teachers.)

That's why showing vulnerability is a humanizing way to break down the artificial barrier that typically separates bosses from employees. One easy way to break down that barrier is to ask for help.

But don't ask the wrong way. Don't puff out your chest, assume the power-position, and in your deepest voice intone, "Listen, John, I need your help." John knows you don't really need his help. You want him to do something.

Instead ask the right way. Imagine you've traveled to an unfamiliar place, you only know a few words of the language, and you're both lost and a little scared.

How would you ask for help? You would be humble. You would be real. You'd cringe a little and dip your head slightly and say, "Can you help me?" Asked that way, John would know you truly needed help. You've lowered your guard. You're vulnerable. And you're not afraid to show it.

By showing vulnerability, you lift the other person. You implicitly recognize her skills while extending trust.

And you set a great example: Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness.

It's a sign of strength.

They give a nudge.

From the employee's point of view the best ideas are never your ideas. The best ideas are their ideas, and rightly so. So don't spell out what you want done. Leave room for initiative. Leave room for ownership.

When you describe what you want to be done, paint with a broad brush. Give employees room to take your ideas and make them their own.

They'll do more than you imagined possible--and they'll feel a sense of satisfaction and gratification that simply following instructions can never provide.

They give unexpected attention.

Everyone loves attention. Unfortunately you don't have unlimited time to devote to each employee.

So make the most of the time you do have. Don't just comment on the big stuff, the stuff you're supposed to focus on.

Notice a small detail. Praise a particular phrase she used to smooth the transition from customer conflict to problem resolution. Praise how he swung by another employee's desk to grab paperwork he could deliver on his way to another office. Pick something small, something positive, something helpful--something unexpected--to show you really pay attention.

Pick out details and employees know you're watching--in a good way--and not only will they work harder, more importantly they will feel better about themselves.

They give employees a break.

He messed up. Badly. Not only are you a little pissed, this is a teachable moment. You feel compelled to talk about it, possibly at length.

Don't. For a good employee, the lesson is already learned. Catch his eye, nod, let it go, and help him fix the problem.

Once in a while employees can all use a break. When they get one they never forget it. And they try really hard to show they deserved that break--and to make sure they never need another one.

They give a peek inside.

My boss was nearly yelling at a supplier who hadn't met a key timeline. It wasn't ugly but it was close. In the middle of their "discussion," when the supplier glanced away, he turned and winked at me.

My boss was signaling that his emotional display was partly for effect, that he had a plan in mind and that I was in on things. I was an insider. We were partners.

We were in it together.

It's easy, as an employee, not to feel like you and your boss are in it together. Make sure your employees do. Give them occasional peeks inside.

They give an undeserved compliment.

Compliments don't always have to be earned. Sometimes a compliment can be like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When you see something in employees that they don't see--at least not yet--they often try hard to fulfill the belief you have in them.

That happened to me. I went out for wrestling in ninth grade and was nervous, scared, intimidated--pick any fearful adjective. It fit. A week or so into practices I heard the coach talking to one of the seniors. "That kid there," he said, referring to me, "will be a state champion by the time he's a senior."

He was wrong. It turned out I wasn't. But I immediately felt more confident, more self-assured, and incredibly motivated. Those feelings lasted for a long time.

He believed in me.

And I started to believe in myself.

They give a hat rack.

Employees who need something--whether it's a day off, a favor, a break, a chance--often come to you with hat in hand.

They're vulnerable because they need.

Take their hat and hang it up for them. You may not be able to provide what they want, but you can work through their issue with compassion and generosity and grace.

Never let an employee stand with hat in hand. It's one of the worst feelings possible--and one you can make instantly disappear.

Last updated: Nov 12, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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