The relationship between boss and direct report is often fraught with problems stemming from being either too involved or not involved enough. Too much of a micromanager or an absentee manager. In many cases, the ideal between these two extremes is where you as a boss can be viewed as a thought partner.
Leaders are expected to do many things, and one of the most important is staying in close relationship with direct reports. This means creating and communicating a vision, then coaching direct reports and their teams to accomplish necessary goals and objectives. It means motivating them to bring their best to the job, providing collaborative counsel, and clearing the path for optimal productivity.
Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor: Be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity, says that the best bosses should care personally while challenging directly, which is at the heart of what she calls radical candor. This is about providing guidance and feedback that is both kind and clear as well as specific and sincere.
A thought partner boss is one who models radical candor so that direct reports feel seen and valued and able to collaborate toward shared goals. On the other hand, the boss who shows up as either micromanager or absentee can undermine all of this.
The micromanager boss can be overly focused on what to do and how to do it. While a boss needs to provide a vision, being overly prescriptive on what to do can undermine a direct report’s own contribution. And telling one how to do something can remove their agency, autonomy, and any opportunity for learning.
This micromanager boss is very much hands-on and one who is typically talking too much, listening too little, telling too much, and often hoarding information. If this sounds like you, it may mean you see yourself as above those reporting to you and may signify that you’re overly reliant on managing down.
An absentee boss is one who is difficult to track down and often skips 1:1 meetings. This can be especially detrimental as direct reports are missing essential information and guidance to do their jobs. Making oneself unavailable means productivity can slow and/or easily go off-track.
This type of boss is too hands-off and not talking or listening, uninterested in details, unaware of problems, and can often cause collateral damage. If this sounds familiar, you may think you are simply getting out of the way but are actually creating confusion. And it may signify that you are overly managing upwards.
The ideal boss is one who is viewed as more as a thought partner to their direct reports, and this is optimal because you provide guidance and direction while engaging in a collaborative relationship.
A thought partner boss is one who is hands-on, talking little and listening a lot. This boss asks relevant questions, responds to problems, offers solutions, removes obstacles, shares knowledge, and works collaboratively to accomplish goals. A thought partner boss is one who works alongside his or her direct reports.
To be a thought partner boss, here are some behaviors you may consider when you interact with your direct reports:
- Provide each direct report with the support and direction they individually need. They are managed best when they are managed the way they want to be managed.
- Rather than solve their problems, get curious to understand what they’ve considered so far and offer what you can to help solve these problems together.
- Demonstrate vulnerability by inviting them to assist you with a challenge you are facing. Give them this opportunity to see things from your perspective.
- Use 1:1 meetings to ask important questions. Fred Kofman, author of Conscious Business, suggests: “What could I do or stop doing that would make it easier for you to work with me?”
- Fight the urge to reject new ideas direct reports may have and instead try to nurture these ideas. Rather than immediately judge the viability of them, seek to gain further clarity and understanding.
Obviously having a thought partner relationship with your direct reports is not only on you as their boss. It requires both individuals showing up in a way that honors the other person and the perspective they bring. It requires trust and respect. And it requires recognizing that only through true collaboration can the two of you work best together.