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The Big Idea: A recent survey suggests that you can give your employees a happiness boost equivalent to doubling their household income. How? By behaving more like a partner and less like a traditional boss. Read on to learn how.

About a decade ago, I can recall one of my favorite leaders in my career.

He was kind, fair, honest, reliable—and provided great feedback for growth. Never threatened by other’s victories, he always seemed to be looking for opportunities to help me succeed at higher levels.

I felt a deep sense that he was in my corner.

After a string of poor supervisors before that time, he restored my faith in good leadership.

As a young manager, I had been offered an opportunity to lead an important new project and team.

I still remember his words. When we were discussing how to help the new program succeed, he gave me a few general guidelines and then said, “This is your program, what do you think would make it successful?”

His words left me stunned.

In one simple question, he had communicated obvious faith in me, a sense of empowerment, and kick-started my thinking and planning.

In an organization where I had grown accustomed to being told what to do with just about everything, he made me feel empowered and creative again. And it generated enormous internal motivation and drive to make the project a success.

Although I could identify many great leadership qualities in my supervisor, there was always some elusive and intangible trait I could not really put my finger on…until now.

A recent 2018 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research helps shed light on this highly effective approach of the very best leaders.

Four economic professors, three from Canada and one from South Korea, analyzed responses from 38,000 global workers in the Gallup-Healthways Daily Poll.

They compared responses to two key questions. One had to do with overall life satisfaction and the other the relationship with the direct supervisor.

“By combining the answers that thousands of people gave to both of those questions, and correlating them with millions of other data points (responses) that allowed them to control for respondents’ personalities and even the days of the week on which they answered the questions, the researchers came up with a surprising but compelling conclusion.” (Inc. 2018)

Employees who felt that their relationship with their work supervisor was more like a partner and less like a traditional boss—had dramatically higher levels of overall life satisfaction.

In fact, the study indicates that employees who reported they had a partner-like supervisor, displayed a similar increase in their life satisfaction equal to the effect they would have experienced if they had doubled their household income!

That is no small finding.

Why should you care about employee “happiness?”

Well, for starters, the study suggests—unsurprisingly—that happier employees are loyal employees. Happiness directly translates into greater productivity, less turnover, less absences, and greater employee retention. All of these things represent huge costs for companies.

In short, when they had partner-like bosses they stayed. When they didn’t, they left.

The great news is that any leader can learn new habits and begin to change their behaviors to develop more of this partner-like approach.

Maybe there is a reason why words like partnership come from partner, and the term bossy has the word boss in it.

Which term would you rather people use to describe your leadership?

Take action now

Here are some ways you can be more partner and less boss:

  1. Model ethical behavior. You cannot earn trust with your team if you don’t practice fairness, honesty, and integrity. Also avoid any gossip yourself and stamp out any gossip on your team. This will create an amazing team culture that is the bedrock of partner bosses.
  2. Share a clear vision, then empower people to act. The most basic principle of organizational development is that people are more likely to support a plan they helped to create. Just like my supervisor did with me in the example above, he gave me a lot of creative freedom in designing the new program, which generated enormous internal motivation for me. Clearly communicating your vision has also been shown to be one of the most important leadership behaviors (see Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge). It’s never as clear to your team as it is in your head. Avoid micromanaging. If you have to micromanage, you either haven’t hired the right people, can’t let go of control, or you are avoiding tough conversations and terminating people that need to go.
  3. Identify (only a few) top priorities. There is nothing worse than everything being a priority and seemingly requiring equal effort. No worker can function this way for long, and this is the fastest pathway to employee burnout. It’s the leader’s job to clarify what’s really important, and what is not, so the team member doesn’t have to read your mind. At my workplace, we like to sit down with our team members and write a one-page business plan where the leader and the team member agree upon the highest priority items. If you want a great team, let some things slide and major on the majors. Email me if you would like a free version of the one-page business plan to use with your team.
  4. Schedule 1-1’s with your team. The research is clear (see Google Oxygen Project) that having individual meetings regularly with your team members is one of the most effective things you can do as a leader. Nothing tells your team members they are important like offering regular portions of your time. These meetings provide opportunities to ensure both leader and team member agree on the highest priority tasks, and establish a time that can be used for two-way feedback, which is essential to the partnership dynamic.
  5. Ask for feedback, do a lot of listening. All organizational literature supports the idea that leaders should ask their team members for feedback, and do a lot of listening. More is caught than taught. When team members see that the leader is not above growth and constructive criticism, they are more likely to be open to feedback themselves. Do an anonymous survey (see my prior article on a simple survey) to find out what your team really thinks, do an anonymous 360 survey on yourself to reveal your blind spots, or create an anonymous suggestion box. After you get the feedback, share the results with the team and make certain to thank people for it and tell them why you will or will not act on it. Also make sure to ask people regularly about their workload and work-stress or job satisfaction. These questions are a gold-mine of information you need to be an effective leader.
  6. Offer recognition and sincere thanks. Again, the organizational literature is clear that we don’t thank or recognize people nearly as much as we think we do, or that they would like us to. You can’t be a partner-leader if you don’t say thank you…often.
  7. Communicate liberally. Employees will become frustrated when communication is lacking. Author Dave Ramsey suggests that leader’s default to over-communicating until it becomes a problem, then scale it back. Good communication builds trust in the leader. You might need to develop town hall meetings, email announcement systems, or good note-taking systems to ensure people don’t miss out on vital communication.
  8. Respect people’s time and offer flexible schedules whenever possible. Have a clear purpose and agenda for all meetings, make some meetings optional, and have less meetings in general (so that people have uninterrupted blocks of time to focus on important projects). This shows great respect for people’s time. Also, the research on life happiness shows a “U shaped” curve, meaning that life happiness often dips around age 40 when the demands of work and home life are often highest. For that reason, allowing people flexible working hours and remote work is especially important during this season.
  9. Get to know their career goals and personal lives. Your job as a leader is to help people grow their potential and reach their goals. You can’t do that effectively if you don’t know what their goals are. Unsurprisingly, people don’t leave a leader that is helping them achieve their professional career goals! Also, executive coach and author Daniel Harkavy encourages leaders, “Get to know your team members 5 to 9, not just their 9 to 5.” Getting to know people personally will give you a ton of insight into how to best lead them. People’s family life will often have a big impact on work, and if you don’t understand it, you can’t lead them as effectively. Don’t force it, some people are more comfortable sharing than others.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Want more? Suggested Resources Below

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Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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