What They Forgot to Tell Bosses but Bosses Need to Know

I led a workshop last week in San Francisco for the Institute for Management Studies, and I was reminded again about how bosses can make their people miserable. This is about how not to do that! Among the 40 or so participants there were about six ghosts, managers the participants had left behind at their workplaces, but whose spirits were conjured.  The participants were seeking some way to “deal with it.”  The ghosts were inflicting two curses on my beleaguered participants: micromanagement and decision-hoarding. If and when you and I are guilty of these, it’s probably rooted in the 2 things we were never told about how to be a great boss.

First, here’s what we were told. We were told this by our parents, then teachers, sometimes coaches, and then the managers who “stand in” for them in our adult lives:

1.  “The one in power gives feedback to the ones who need to learn from them.” And,

2.  “Sometimes, the followers — children, students, players, workers — make mistakes, and they need to apologize for mistakes they have made.”

These lessons were pounded in, baked in, poured in, pressed in . . . until they were completely internalized. So, except for a stretch around adolescence, most children and subordinates accept all feedback, try never to make mistakes, and apologize when they do.  (Proof:  Of my 400 college and grad students over the past 3 years, I can’t remember one who has pushed back in the slightest when I chose to give them feedback; and I could count on one hand those who have made mistakes and had to apologize.  In other words: The Training Works! Docility rules.

So, you’ve anticipated the problem, right? Once a person becomes a parent or boss, they basically switch sides of the feedback-and-apology-teeter-totter, and send the other person flying to the moon! In other words, almost all of us idiotically learn that we are entitled to give feedback, and our followers are expected to apologize for all mistakes. Both are one-way streets.   Bosses need not be open to feedback — let alone seek it.  And they never have to apologize.  Thus, this result from hundreds of thousands of leaders taking the Leadership Practices Inventory is entirely unsurprising. THE question with the lowest average score, asks people to rate the leader on whether s/he “Asks for feedback on how his/her actions affect other people’s performance.”  My clients routinely score lowest on this of all 30 practices, and I tell them: “Don’t feel too bad. No one ever told you you were supposed to ask for feedback; you were supposed to be the one giving it.” But because positional authorities impact everyone in their shop, they need to get feedback more than they need to give it. If you’re a manager, your behavior multiplies itself. Get feedback NOW.

Second, I empower my kids, spouse, students, and employees to tell me if I have done something wrong or hurt them and/or their work.  And I apologize (as I’ve shared in the last couple weeks). But I wonder if your experience is like mine?  I always hear an inner voice balking: “Hey, I’m the parent/boss, here! Why should apologize?” That inner voice echoes the irritation, even anger, expressed by my dad and grandpa and bosses and movie figures in the cases when someone foolishly challenged their behavior or authority. They were apt to yell, “Who the hell do you think you are? Who pays for the roof over your head? Who bought the food on your table?”  That is part of our instinctive, factory installed equipment. But that position of entitlement is so obsolete. If I want openness, transparency, trust, and adaptability, I should be the leader of responsibility and humility about my behavior.  I urge you to choose an approach that can allow “your people” to express their needs, opinions, hurts, etc., so you can move forward together. A sincere apology is a terrific way to clean the slate and build trust.

Sometimes you have to let go of your power and privilege to

Lead with your best self,



  • When I talk to managers about asking for feedback I suggest that they prepare to ask In multiple ways and multiple times over the course of time . As you said, Dan, it’s so baked in for most people that it will take time for people to believe the manager is sincere. And the manager should work hard to be sincere because people sense the intent.

  • “I’m Sorry.” is one of the most powerful phrases in all of business, and life. It is also one of the most difficult phrases to speak, or write.

  • Dan,
    You are on task as usual. The problem with Toxic Bosses is that they are usually totally oblivious to their behavior! ~The TIP Lady

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