There is an entire industry devoted to making bosses into leaders. Maybe what we need is an industry devoted to making bosses into workers.
I'm not trying to be snide. I'm not trying to deny the power of good leadership. But a new study on "Boss Competence and Worker Well-Being" suggests that what employees really want from their bosses--and the single thing that will make them happier, and therefore more productive in their jobs--is for their bosses, when necessary, to become worker bees.
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin, City University London, and the University of Warwick recently re-examined data from a number of large longitudinal studies of 6,000 randomly sampled U.S. workers. The workers were asked, "Overall, how well do you like your job?" They answered on a four-point scale, from "I like it very much," to "I dislike it very much." The workers were also asked if their boss, in a pinch, could do their job.
Having a boss who could do their job was enough to significantly increase employees' job satisfaction. As the authors write, "Employees enjoy their jobs far more where the supervisor... is technically competent. … A movement from Not True at All (that the supervisor could do the person’s job) to Very True would be associated with a quadrupling of the level of job satisfaction."
It seems that entrepreneurs would have an edge here, at least at the early stages of building a company. Many services companies, especially, hire their first employee because the founder has been doing everything, and finally got one client too many.
But if your company has scaled in a different way--say it's a manufacturing company--you might reply that it's just not possible, or reasonable, for you to be able to do every employee's job. This is exactly the response Marcus Lemonis, star of The Profit, got at the Inc. 5000 conference in Phoenix last month, when he asked entrepreneurs if they could do their employees' jobs.
But Lemonis pushed. It was slightly uncomfortable, and at the time, I'm not sure I understood how important it was. To the man who said he just didn’t have the temperament to take customer service calls, Lemonis suggested that his employees would respect him more if he at least tried. A woman who had never worked in her manufacturing plant was advised to have one of her employees show her the ropes.
Investors, entrepreneurs, and even academics all say, repeatedly, that if we really want to innovate, we have to learn to fail early and often. But are we ready to fail in front of our employees, early and often? And eventually, to learn how to do what they do? The research suggests that Lemonis is right (again), and that we should.