There's a popular myth that the tough boss is a good boss, that demanding bosses get better results. Notable leaders such as Amy Klobuchar and Steve Jobs are known for this. But, as it turns out, being a tough boss won't necessarily encourage your team to work harder.
A 2017 review of scientific studies on supervisor behavior that bordered on abusive, found no evidence to support the idea that a tough boss is more likely to get results.
Not only is it a myth that tough bosses get better results, but tough bosses may be bad bosses. The behaviors that make a business leader "tough" can veer quickly into harmful choices. This can alienate peers and chase off top talent.
Even if you aren't a toxic boss, however, too much toughness can be self-defeating when it comes to employee morale at your company.
Fortunately, you can change your leadership style and gain the benefits of a softer, more balanced approach to managing employees and growing your business.
1. Recognize the strength in being tough without over-relying on it.
I try to remember that "tough" is a subjective standard, but it's one that's based on certain common strengths. By understanding what those strengths are, and cultivating (without over-relying on) them, entrepreneurs can temper the edge that is often seen as tough or even abusive.
Some of best leaders I've met have these qualities. Most workers appreciate the type of boss who makes quick decisions with a healthy dose of confidence. Whether the decision turns out to be boon or bust, these good managers shrug and move on quickly.
Many "tough" business owners tend to take greater risks. However, these risks must be calculated ones. Rashly choosing a risky course of conduct without first doing due diligence or considering pros and cons isn't good leadership. It's just reckless behavior from a difficult boss.
2. Cultivate your softer side
Much of what employees view as "toughness" comes down to the respect, or lack thereof, they sense being extended to them. Therefore, one of the best ways to soften up is to focus on cultivating empathy and compassion.
Try to express genuine interest in your colleagues and employees, both in their personal well-being and in their workplace experiences. People respond more warmly to those who express warm interest in them. So if you're struggling to break out of "tough boss" mode, find some common ground and listen actively.
3. Improve your communications.
Workers often find bosses "tough" simply because they show their frustration and annoyance when they're not satisfied with particular results. To avoid this, first get very clear with yourself about your expectations. Then you can communicate them more effectively to others. During performance reviews for example, use constructive criticism if an employee doesn't meet high expectations.
Always avoid micromanaging, however. Tell them what you expect to see when the task is complete, but shy away from dictating how that task gets done. Let your employees exercise independence in ways appropriate to their position and skill level.
4. Ask for input.
Tough bosses often don't value input from others. Yet if you've added them to your team, you should absolutely want to hear what they have to say. Look for opportunities to seek input from executives, managers and employees in the form of direct reports.
Great leaders with higher emotional intelligence don't simply take input like a human suggestion box, though. Show true respect for workers as co-creators and teammates by valuing their hard work and new ideas. Look actively for ways to act on that input when possible.
5. Think about others.
How would you feel if someone looked for ways to improve your day or make your job easier? Most of us would feel more open to that person or even consider them a friend.
You can cultivate that goodwill in your employees by taking the same approach. Consider what can make your workers' lives easier. This doesn't need to be something huge, like a large company-wide bonus (although that would be nice). Look for actions you can take or changes you can make that result in a positive change for staff.
I know one founder who provided a high-quality coffee service instead of simply putting an office coffee maker in the break room. Another entrepreneur hired massage therapy students to offer short back and neck rubs during stressful projects at his company. Even small acts of thoughtfulness help soften up your image and increase positive feelings in your employees.