10 things great bosses do

We hear a lot about bad bosses because they generate so many complaints … but great bosses don’t get a lot of press. But they’re out there, leading teams effectively, producing results, and delighting their employees.

Looking for a way to identify them? Here’s a list of 10 things great bosses do. See how your own manager stacks up – or, if you’re a manager yourself, check how you measure up to this list.

1. Great bosses give feedback – both praise and criticism. They’re clear with employees about what they do well and where they could do better. Employees shouldn’t have to wonder how they’re doing or wait until a formal performance assessment to find out; they should be receiving steady, regular feedback throughout the year. And great bosses know that feedback is specific; it’s not just “great job” or “you need to step up your game.” It’s thoughtful, nuanced input that you can actually act on.

2. Great bosses lay out clear expectations. One of a manager’s most important responsibilities is to communicate clear, concrete goals and make sure that staff members know what success in their jobs looks like. They’re also relentless about identifying the most important results for their teams to achieve and focusing on how to get there, and are rigorous about asking, “Is this the best way for us to be spending our time and resources right now?”

3. Great bosses keep the focus on results. They assess people’s performance based on what they’re actually achieving; they’re not overly swayed by whether someone schmoozes with big names over lunch or just keeps quietly to themselves. And to help keep the focus on results, they work to remove obstacles from their team’s way, whether it’s bringing in more resources or eliminating policies that slow people down.

4. Great bosses are accessible. They check in on work as it unfolds, touching base to make sure that your vision is aligned with theirs and making themselves available as a resource when you need them (within reason; they can’t be available all the time, of course). They don’t delegate and disappear – or swoop in at the last minute to make major changes to work when it’s almost complete. They’re in touch with you enough that any course corrections happen early on and you don’t find out about big surprises at the end of a project.

5. Great bosses care passionately about the makeup of their team. They know that the people on their team will have a huge impact on their ability to get results, so they’re proactive about recruiting, developing, and retaining high performers … and are willing to move assertively when someone on the team isn’t meeting the high bar they need. They put a significant amount of energy into all these things rather than leaving them to chance (or to HR), because they’re directly tied to how much they’ll be able to get done.

6. Great bosses are constantly looking for ways to get better. They’re often almost ruthless about identifying ways their team or organization could perform better, and they apply this same determination to improve to themselves as well. (And that last part is key; it’s what gives them credibility when they ask their staff to do the same.) One way they do that is through the next item on our list…

7. Great bosses ask for (and truly welcome) input. They ask for input on everything from how an employee thinks last week’s launch event went to what she thought of a job candidate to what projects aren’t a good use of time. They do this not to get out of making decisions themselves – because they know they need to make the final call on many things – and not just to make employees feel good, but because they know that they will truly reach a better decision when they’re exposed to many different perspectives.

8. Great bosses treat employees like adults. They’re not monitoring your every moment at your desk, or demanding a doctor’s note when you’re out sick, or signing off on every tiny decision you make. They don’t care if you come in late or leave early occasionally, as long as you’re doing good work. They trust you to be a responsible adult and to manage your own time and work – and they trust themselves to spot it if you’re not.

9. Great bosses measure their own performance by their lowest performer. It’s easy for a manager to judge herself based on what her top people achieve. But the real measure of a manager is how she handles her bottom performers. They’re the ones who show what she’s actually willing to accept on her team – and whether she’s willing to take on problems heads-on, have tough conversations, and hold people accountable.

10. Great bosses treat people well. They know that they have people working for them, not automatons, and that those people have options for where they work. They care about their quality of life, they know that people will make mistakes and even sometimes fail, they recognize that employees have lives outside of work (lives that will sometimes get in the way!), and they treat people with dignity and kindness, even in the hardest moments, like letting someone go.

Have a boss who meets all or most of these items? Or worked for one in the past? Let them know how much you appreciate them – because theses bosses are a valuable and rare commodity.

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    “[Great bosses] don’t delegate and disappear – or swoop in at the last minute to make major changes to work when it’s almost complete.”

    Srsly, don’t be a seagull! (Fly in, poop all over everything, and fly away.)

    I’ve been fortunate enough to have a manager in the past who modeled how to be a great boss, and I hope I’m putting those lessons into practice as a manager myself. #9 is food for thought — I would say all the others are lessons I picked up from said awesome manager, but I hadn’t thought about approaching my own performance as a boss in terms of who’s the weakest member of the team. Right now I’d be hard-pressed to say who that is, so I guess that’s a good thing!

    1. KC*

      I love the seagull metaphor.

      “Don’t take a package that’s already neatly wrapped, poke holes in it, and drag the contents all over the beach.” — True story.

    2. Lamington*

      my boss is a seagull, i have seen it time and time again with jhid last minute editing skills.

  2. Anonymous*

    Great bosses do not become doormats. My coworkers and I are very well capable of walking over our boss to get what we want – extra long vacation time, days off when we want, etc. But at the same time, it also causes animosity amongst the rest of us as one coworker abuses that power, but the boss still gives in despite seeing the obvious upset it causes.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Yeah, been there. The bosses you can walk all over cause so many issues and garner no respect. It’s a recipe for disaster most of the time especially when you have low performers taking advantage of it.

      1. Jessa*

        Yes and worse their response to being called on it, or having it blow up, is to take things away from everyone instead of dealing with the specific problem person. Oy.

        1. Ruffingit*

          Exactly, this is one of the hallmarks of a really bad boss in my view – unwilling to take individuals to task, thinking it’s easier to just punish/reward as a group. It’s not. Deal with the problem person not the group.

  3. Carrie in Scotland*

    This list just shows how bad my management group is at my office….bad times.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Same here. In doing a quick mental review of my past bosses, I don’t think I’ve ever had one that meets even half the criteria. Good, strong management is not easy.

    1. Legal jobs*


      Only counted two that applied to management.

      The worst being a complete lack of objective criteria for evaluating performance. A manager who took a department into the red is promoted while I get laid off for having saved company money.

      Why different treatment?

      The manager is close friends with executives.

  4. The Cosmic Avenger*

    Actually, my boss kind of delegates and disappears…which I love because my tasks require all of my concentration, but little to no input while I’m working on them, and when I do contact him with a question or problem he always responds right away.

    My point is, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. :)

    1. Elizabeth West*

      That’s the way my boss is; she says she is sure we know how to manage our own time (yay for being treated like an adult!). As long as the work is done right she doesn’t hover or hammer, and if you make a mistake she points it out to you in a neutral manner and lets you fix it.

    2. CC*

      “when I do contact him with a question or problem he always responds right away”

      That’s not disappearing. Disappearing is when you try to contact the boss with a question or problem repeatedly and can’t get the answer you need to complete your work.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        +1. A great boss knows when you can run with something and when you need a little more hand-holding, and adjusts to the situation.

        A bad boss micromanages, or is present only at the beginning and right before the end — just in time to be, all, “This is NOT how I wanted it done. Do it over.”

      2. MR*

        My thoughts exactly. The boss is still there, he just lets you do your job and then is available when you need assistance.

  5. Poohbear McGriddles*

    Bosses who meet all of those criteria hang out with unicorns, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

    1. Anonymous*

      My boss meets all those criteria and I think she might be some kind of robot that the company created.

          1. Ruffingit*

            I’d become a work stalker and follow her around to all her jobs. LOL! Seriously, it’s amazing to think there’s a person out there who does all these things, it’s awesome you are working for her.

    2. Anonicorn*

      I know, right? I don’t think I’ve ever had a boss that meets all these criteria, but it’s also useful to keep in mind that even great bosses make mistakes.

  6. Barbara in Swampeast*

    I would add that great bosses also pitch in when needed.

    If there are only three people in an office and one is on the phone and another is helping a customer in person, it’s very helpful if the boss answers the ringing phone.

    I was lucky to work in a well-run Census2010 office. The big boss would answer the phone if no one else was available (there were a limited number of people who had phones). And when the forms started coming back in, he would come out of his office if he had a few minutes and move boxes of forms around as they were needed. We “lost” him half way through the count because they needed him to fix problems in other census offices.

    1. Sascha*

      One of my former managers was like that, and one of the many reasons why I loved him. He would come into work with us on snow days when he didn’t have to (and the director herself wouldn’t show), he’d work tickets, he would stay behind to cover the phones if we wanted to do a group lunch…just all sorts of things, in addition to knowing how to manage well and get good results. I miss working for him.

    2. littlemoose*

      +1. I worked retail in the past, and I had a boss who was generally well-liked around the store; however, he often did not come out of the back room and pitch in when we were swamped, and this created a lot of resentment. I know he sometimes had important things to do, like taking conference calls and making the schedule, but other times it was definitely something that could have waited until the busy period died down. Anyway, the other employees definitely noticed it. Being the boss doesn’t mean you never have to get your hands dirty.

  7. Joey*

    The best bosses I ever had all had two things in common- they practiced what they preached and motivated people to give discretionary effort.

    1. Esra*

      Yes! Nothing kills morale quicker than a boss who holds others to higher standards than they do themselves. I mostly enjoy my new workplace, but that is one thing that’s endemic with management.

  8. AndersonDarling*

    I have a boss with all these great qualities, but the best one isn’t mentioned. He is a buffer between outside criticism and his team. We like to call it the Bouncer job.
    When the CEO goes overboard because he didn’t like the color on a presentation, my boss takes the criticism so it doesn’t bring me down. If an outside manager decides I should be doing a crazy time consuming project, I tell my boss and he takes care of the uncomfortable conversation that needs to take place.
    He’s a bouncer that lets important, relevant information come through and bounces the rest back where it belongs.

    1. the_scientist*

      I agree with this so much! Good bosses don’t throw their employees under the bus, even, I think, if they are clearly in the wrong. I work on a project with many scientists (which means a lot of egos!) and was recently on the receiving end of some flaming and completely unwarranted criticism. It was tough not to take it personally but knowing that my manager and boss had my back and were willing to take the lead in responding and working towards a resolution was so, so important.

    2. Sharon*

      Agree, this is one that Alison left out. Good bosses ensure that their team has everything they need to get the job done and protect them from interference and company politics.

  9. Anon*

    My boss doesn’t care about us as people and micromanages. He’s good at the day to day tasks of his job but was mad that a colleague took the allotted bereavement time when his grandmother died, and I haven’t heard him offer a word of condolence.

  10. Aimee*

    I’m lucky enough to have a great boss. Not only does she do everything on the list, she also champions the people on her team and helps us advance in our careers (by arranging for us to take courses or pursue certifications that will help us, and having the company pay for them; by encouraging us to apply for other positions that would be a good next step; and by making sure that we get credit for what we do and are visible to senior leadership). I’m actually working for her now because she reached out to me when she had an opening on her team – it was a promotion for me, and she thought I would be a good fit for the role. It wasn’t a role I actually would have considered if it didn’t mean getting to work for her again, but I’ve discovered that it is something I really enjoy and am good at!

  11. Sharm*

    I think I have been incredibly lucky, compared to the comments here and what we usually hear. (I know people tend to post the negative, but still.)

    I’ve had three managers who consistently did most of these things. This is my normal; I don’t even know what I’ll do when I get a bad boss. The odds are definitely not in my favor, so it’s only a matter of time. :-(

  12. littlemoose*

    Thanks for posting this. I do a tiny bit of supervising at the moment, but I might move to a management role in the future, and I clipped this to Evernote for reference.

  13. 'nother moose*

    My boss is wonderful. I would add one thing to the list: part of what makes my boss awesome is that she addresses potential problems or awkward situations in a thoughtful, direct, and timely manner. She takes the time to discuss it professionally with us (either individually or as a group, whichever the situation merits) but does not let things slide so long that they have either snowballed or been forgotten. She does not rehash the situation or even mention it again (unless we don’t take care of it after she brings it to our attention) and trusts us to behave as professional adults. Very inspiring.

  14. ANON*

    And thanks for spelling out the exact reasons why I am so unhappy with my boss. No direction, no feedback, and loves to schmooze with others over lunch…. leadership at it’s finest!

  15. MR*

    The best boss I ever had gave me feedback all the time. You never had to wonder about whether she was happy with your work or not. You knew, and if there was something wrong, you knew what you had to do to fix it. She was very direct in her assessments and I can imagine that if she gave me less feedback, that directness could have felt harsh, but because we were constantly talking about what I got right too, even her plain-spoken criticism felt really supportive and like she was invested in my growth.

  16. JustMe*

    IMO, there is a major difference between being a leader and being a manager. What most people describe in the previous comments is a manager. They manage the day to day – people and tasks. That’s the extent of it.

    Leaders inspire others to greatness. Work becomes less mundane.

    I’ve had lots of managers who were bad bosses. When I asked one for feedback on my job performance and asked how I can get to the next level, all he said was I’m a nice person…but… Yes, he ended with but! No feedback. He was promoted to Sr. Mgr. though none of my peers liked him. Another would peak into my cube; her cube was adjacent to mine, to see what I was doing. She even went so far as peaking around the corner to hear if I was asking my coworker for coding help. He and I were good friends, so I had stop by his cube to ask about his hand. I had previously asked him his thoughts on a program’s logic.

    My good bosses were ones I considered to be leaders. They possessed the innate ability to lead and inspire people to be great. I had no problems with them. I’d even volunteer (gleefully) to go into work on a weekend without any gripes.

    I wonder why most companies (the powers that be) don’t look for leadership qualities when selecting a management team. This can make the world of a different between having a good boss vs. a bad one.

  17. Al Lo*

    This makes me very thankful for my boss, who hits at least 6 or 7 of these pretty solidly, and doesn’t outright fail on any of them. I actually got an email from her last week praising my management style on a department that I just took over within the past year and am coming up on my first major event in that department, and it was so great to see clearly outlined why she thinks I’m successful.

    There are frustrations, of course, but in the big scheme of things, I’m glad to have a boss who is open to new ideas, willing to step back (and is actively trying to step back and work on her succession plan), and trusts that I’m knowledgeable in my field and that’s why she hired me.

  18. Legal jobs*

    Let me just say that I’ve had managers who were great.

    Its in the comparison that lead to trouble. Meaning, communicating with bad management about updates is progress b/c they never ask, requesting feedback about performance because they never give it and generally approaching the bad boss like they are a healthy boss. It doesn’t work.

    I think that I read in the archives here that you can’t make a bad boss into a good one. It is really true. The employee can’t make a lemon boss into the list of what makes a good boss. The manager either has to have the traits or wants to have them.

    1. Ruffingit*

      The manager either has to have the traits or wants to have them.

      This. So true. And some managers don’t bother because they don’t have to. Regardless of how crappy they are, they continue to be employed and get promoted so there’s no reason for them to try and do better. It’s a shame.

  19. The New T*

    I’d like one of those managers soon please. I’ve only worked in 3 companies so far and all have many different flaws.
    The current is better cos she’s not always looking over my shoulder.

  20. Mints*

    This is inspiring me to write a note to my old, great, boss. Usually the bad manager articles inspire me to job hunt, but maybe I’ll just be nostalgic today

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