February 17, 2014

Great bosses often have big talent, big ideas and big reputations for excellence. But here’s what I’ve learned: Even when those respected leaders are larger than life, they have remarkably small feet.  Said another way: They don’t “Bigfoot” their employees. They don’t stomp like Sasquatch on their colleagues’ ambitions and successes.

Employees resent “Bigfoot Bosses” because they are takers. They rob people of opportunity, advancement and job satisfaction as they:

  • Take credit for the work of others
  • Take the spotlight when it could be shared
  • Take high-profile assignments for themselves
  • Take more control over their employees than is truly necessary

They may do it out of fear, insecurity, or some misguided response to that oft-heard business advice about “building your personal brand.”  But they are headed for disappointment.

Managers with a reputation for bigfooting others are unlikely to be seen as true leaders.  What they gain in short-term glory or power, they lose in respect and collaboration — and ultimately undermine their own success.

Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of one of my favorite books,”Give and Take,” has done extensive research about the impact of selfishness and selflessness in the workplace. Bosses, or people who aspire to management, should heed what Grant says in an essay for a business magazine:

In a wide range of fields that span manufacturing, service, and knowledge work, recent research has shown that employees with the highest rates of promotion to supervisory and leadership roles exhibit the characteristics of givers—helping colleagues solve problems and manage heavy workloads. Takers, who put their own agenda first, are far less likely to climb the corporate ladder.

So, how do you make certain that your staff doesn’t consider you a Bigfoot Boss, someone who puts your own agenda first?  Here are my tips:

  • Be proactive about giving credit to others.

Start with the assumption that you are honor-bound to give credit where it’s due. Then realize it takes more than good intentions to do it right.  Research says we often over-value our efforts and under-report those of others. After all, It’s easiest to remember our own contributions, but we’re less skilled at noticing and recalling all the efforts of others. Social scientists call this “egocentric bias.” But it can be mitigated by vigilance.  Pay close attention to what others are doing well, take notes if need be — so you don’t even inadvertently shortchange people.

  • Set the record straight when you are given excessive credit.

Be an advocate for accurate, genuine appreciation and recognition. Never let mistaken kudos stand, especially when the error builds you up at the expense of others. When you know that people have been left out of the credit conversation or their contributions have been minimized, speak up.  You may have to correct your own boss, but if you do it diplomatically, it will be appreciated by everyone involved.

  • Give employees a “seat at the table.” 

Look for opportunities to involve people in key meetings or gatherings. Be strategic about putting the right individuals into the right situations so they can show what they know, learn more and get opportunities to step up. Tell staffers why you are including them. Set them up to succeed by coaching them about the personalities, procedures and politics they’ll encounter.

  • Think twice before grabbing that coveted assignment for yourself.

Why are you taking the lead in this work? Will it fail without you at the helm? Is it especially risky? Or is it just potentially high-profile and rewarding? If it’s the latter, then how can you share this opportunity with others?  You don’t have to step away from all high-visibility, high-impact, or high-fun work — but you can certainly share the wealth.

  • Resist the temptation to put your footprints on everything. 

Bigfoot Bosses are often micromanagers. They may think they are improving the work by their close inspection, or worse, by keeping a hand in the process. Meanwhile, their excessive control is strangling their staff, especially their most competent employees.  Autonomy — a sense of control and independence — is a key intrinsic motivator.  Bigfoot micromanagers steal not just pride of authorship, but the authorship itself from employees. That’s a guaranteed demotivator.

If you want to keep employees engaged, give them as much autonomy as you can along with the every bit credit they’ve earned. As I write in my book, “Work Happy, What Great Bosses Know“:

We live in a world that shines the spotlight on the top leader. Widen the beam at every opportunity. When there’s a success, credit your co-leaders. Make it absolutely clear when their ideas, solutions or just plain hard work are the driving force behind wins and wise moves. When they mess up, stand with them and take your lumps. Then work together to find solutions.

Here’s the bottom line, bosses: If you do your best to keep from bigfooting others, something magical happens. When you take the next step up in your career, people will applaud your success. In fact, they’ll say you’ll be tough act to follow.

That’s because, despite leading with undersized feet, you’ll leave mighty big shoes to fill.

* * *

In the companion podcast to this column, I share a few more thoughts about avoiding a “Bigfoot Boss” reputation.

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Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist…
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