how to tell if you have a good boss

You might think it’s easy to tell whether you have a good boss or not. But I regularly hear people describe their managers as being great for reasons like “she’s laid-back” or “he always pitches in to help us when we’re on a deadline crunch” or “she helped me get into grad school.” Those things are certainly nice qualities in a boss, but they’re not the crux of what makes someone good at the job of managing.

Instead, as you’re assessing how well your boss manages you and your team, think about these traits and behaviors:

Does your boss set clear expectations? Does she ensure that you know what it would look like to do a great job on specific projects and in your role overall, or do you sometimes feel that you’re stumbling around, unsure of what it would take to get high praise on a project? Are you ever surprised to find that your boss was expecting your work to look very different than it did? A good manager will take the time to hash out expectations on the front end so that you have a clear understanding of what it will take to be successful, and so that you’re not investing your time and energy in the wrong areas.

Does your boss give you regular feedback, both positive and more critical? A good manager will give you regular, clear and specific feedback through the year about what you’re doing well and what you could do better. You should generally hear much more positive than negative feedback, but your boss shouldn’t shy away from telling you when your work is falling short or you need to better develop a skill.

Does your boss keep the focus on what results you’re getting and give you room to figure out how to get there? Or does she dictate exactly how to do everything and watch over every little step in the process? Good managers do stay involved as work unfolds, so that they can act as a resource and course-correct if needed. But they also give employees the space to be creative and figure out the best way to reach a goal.

Does your boss welcome your input, and let you in on her reasoning for the decisions she makes? Good bosses seek out input on everything from how to perfect a strategy to whether a deadline is realistic. Decisions won’t always go everyone’s way, but a good manager will make sure that people feel heard and respected, and will genuinely want the benefit of hearing perspectives other than their own.

Does your boss treat you like a professional adult or like a wayward teenager who will misbehave if you’re not monitored all the time? Good bosses know that they’ve hired adults and will trust you to be responsible and to manage your own time and work. They won’t demand doctor’s notes when you’re out sick, give you a hard time for occasionally leaving early on a slow week when your workload allows it or prohibit telecommuting simply because they don’t trust you to work when they can’t see you.

Does your boss push you to achieve at high levels without being unrealistic? This is a tricky balance, but the best managers know how to push you toward ambitious goals without getting into the realm of the unreasonable or the unrealistic. And while good managers have high expectations, they’re willing to brainstorm with you about how to meet those expectations – helping you lay out a plan or develop your skills, not just assigning you a big goal and then disappearing.

Does your boss address problems forthrightly? Or do you see problems ignored and allowed to fester? Good bosses won’t put off hard conversations, like letting someone know their work is falling short or that their attitude is alienating co-workers. Strong bosses know that if there’s a serious problem on their team, that reflects on their own performance most of all.

Does your boss treat you and your co-workers with dignity and respect? A manager who yells, disparages people, shoots the messenger or expects you not to have a life outside of work is failing at one of the most important tests of a manager. Good managers know that good employees have options, and that they won’t stay long in a workplace that mistreats them.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 46 comments… read them below }

    1. JM in England

      As is mine and he’s leaving next March. My main concern is what his replacement will be like…………

  1. Tomato Frog

    I describe my old boss as being a good mentor and a poor manager. I was a graduate student, and she gave me good advice about getting started in the field and really went to bat for me and my coworkers when it came to things like extending our contracts or getting more hours. Without her, it’s quite possible I’d have no career. However, she sucked at giving feedback and clearly communicating expectations. She was approachable, and she would readily answer straightforward questions, but she’d never give you real criticism or guidance on how to improve, or give you specific of what she liked or didn’t like about your work. It took a toll on all of us who were serious about our work. Never being certain if your work is quite up to snuff is hard on conscientious people.

  2. TCO

    I’d also add: Is your boss a good advocate for you? By that, I mean:
    When possible, do they buffer you from bureaucracy or other barriers that prevent you from getting your work done? Do they intervene when needed, rather than being passive?
    Are they openly appreciative of your work in front of you and others?
    Do they encourage you to grow and take on new challenges when appropriate?

    1. Saturnalia

      So much this. My boss ticks all the boxes from the article, yet still is not a good boss, and it’s because he doesn’t advocate for me and is subconsciously sexist. Probably the latter causes the former. Le sigh.

    2. Crazy Dog Lady

      Yes to this – I didn’t realize the importance of having a good advocate as a boss until my old boss left. She was the best advocate for our team, and encouraged us to grow. She would make sure to give us projects that suited our interests, to balance out the mundane day-to-day work.

      I miss her. NewBoss has been around for a year and every person who’s on the team is miserable. When I was reading that list, I just kept saying, “Nope, nope, nope….” And the advocacy thing is the biggest issue – she’s passive, doesn’t listen to the team when we tell her how long projects will take/what we need to get them done, and throws us under the bus when confronted by senior management. It’s frustrating.

      The new thing is treating us like wayward teenagers – I need to come in 15 minutes earlier and can no longer occasionally telecommute because someone else may ask to do the same, but she’s “truly, not obsessed with hours”. I’ve worked the same schedule for four years without complaints and am the highest performer/most productive on the team, and I ultimately work the same amount of hours as anyone else (I work through my lunch)…but that doesn’t matter.

      Give thanks for your good bosses – they are a true treasure!

    3. copy run start

      I’d add: are they a good advocate for your team (or position if you’re a team of one)?

      Having experienced a boss who stayed silent while others openly disparaged our team and fixed all interdepartmental issues by punishing us has really illuminated how toxic it can be to me. It’s hard to get anything done around all the condescension in that kind of environment.

    4. SusanIvanova

      That is *the* number one thing on my list; if you can do that, you can manage anything. My brother is a restaurant manager and he was describing his job – balance the requests from the owners with what his staff says is possible (you don’t want a menu with few overlapping ingredients, for instance, which was the battle he was having at the time).

      My software team was looking for a manager at the time and having a hard time finding someone who’d do the same for us – yes, you want X features by Y date, and we can do most of that, but when we say some of that is impossible, believe us. I jokingly told my brother he ought to apply with us.

  3. the gold digger

    I really like my current boss. It took one bad boss and a horrible grandboss for me to realize how good I had had it until them and for me to realize how good I have it now. My current boss tells me what he wants but does not micromanage how I do it. He gives me very clear, direct, fast feedback and is open to discussion (some might call it argument) and has been known to change his mind when the evidence warrants. He makes it clear that he appreciates what the team and I do, praising us in front of other people.

    I tell him if he quits, he has to take me with him, as I will not work for his peer who sits in the office next to him (and who, apparently, expects me to read his mind. Which I cannot do. I have tried.)

    1. Undine

      There’s probably some law that the kind of person who expects you to read their mind is the kind of person whose mind is hard to read. They must have a sort of chaos/disorganization filter on their thoughts.

    2. esra (also a Canadian)

      Ugh, I feel like this about my current boss. I had a string of seriously bad management. I’m paranoid now every time she’s out for a doctor’s appointment that it’s a “doctor’s appointment.”

  4. Fabulous

    Until my current position, I had a slew of horrible bosses.

    Started out with someone who gave me minimal feedback, rarely talked to me at all on a day-to-day basis, and ultimately refused to hire/train a replacement when I gave my notice. I went from one extreme to the opposite with my next manager, who was an incessant micromanager (i.e. “Re-print this letter, it’s one line off from being centered on the page! or “This staple isn’t horizontal! Your work ethic is abysmal!”) – he went through more assistants than I could count while I was there… Then after him, I ended up back at the other extreme with a remote manager who again didn’t do any managing. I realized shortly before that job ended that I hadn’t actually talked to him in nearly 5 months. Good times…

    My current manager is also remote, but she makes sure to check in at least once a day via IM or phone and communicates her appreciation for the work I do. I think it takes the bad ones to help you realize who the good ones are!

    1. JM in England

      If you get a series of bad bosses, like I did in my early career, it can seriously skew your perception of how the normal/good ones are supposed to behave…………………

  5. Brogrammer

    My boss is a nice person, but he’s not a good boss. He’s overloaded with his own work which definitely contributes, but he’s not good at being clear about his expectations and his feedback tends to fall into the pattern of “everything is fine until all of a sudden it isn’t.”

  6. rawr

    My beloved boss is retiring soon and this makes me miss her already. I’ve had good managers and bad, but she’s by far the best one.

  7. Anon for this one

    Reading this made me so sad, because my old boss fit this list to a tee, and my new boss… not so much.

  8. Nunya

    Soooo timely!
    My partner was hoping to have ‘the talk’ with her boss today, but more preventable/self-inflicted fires broke out before she could, so instead of having a grown up meeting about how adult professionals expect to be treated, she’s trapped in the trenches with a dead (and should have been replaced long ago) computer.
    The talk may end up being her two week notice at this point.

  9. LQ

    My boss is pretty good. I wish I got more feedback. The few times something that is a “don’t do that” has come up he’s told me, but other than that most of the feed back is “yeah you’re doing great, keep doing what you’re doing” which is…good? I guess?

    Other than that he’s good at expectations, he expects me to have input and seeks it out, he advocates for me, helps me get tools (got me into a shiny leadership program), and more. He also doesn’t try to be my friend, he doesn’t expect me to be his friend, he’s not warm and fuzzy. But I wouldn’t want him to be. I think that is what a couple people on the team want though. Want him to hang out and chat more and be more …buddies than boss. It is good to have it reinforced that he’s good, even if he isn’t meeting the expectations of others.

    I try hard to say, clearly and calmly, if there is something I need to change or do different, please tell me I want to know. I do wish I had more feedback.

  10. SJ

    Does your boss address problems forthrightly?

    This was a major problem with my last boss and really affected my opinion of him. He was great in so many ways, but there was a really toxic conflict between 2 people in my office, and he just refused to deal with the situation and left the rest of us to suffer with the consequences. I was a valued performer and specifically mentioned this conflict causing problems in the office in my exit interview, but they’re both still there.

  11. Lemon Zinger

    Well, my boss was supposed to call me 20 minutes ago to talk about possibly allowing me to flex my hours… and she hasn’t called. I have a meeting to go to. The call was confirmed in the last hour. She does this ALL THE TIME.

    She’s not a great boss.

  12. Murphy

    “Does your boss welcome your input, and let you in on her reasoning for the decisions she makes?”

    Or at an even more basic level: “Does your boss let you know what is going on?” Because the answer to that is definitely no. We just got a division-wide memo stating that an employee in another division has been also jointly appointed to our division and “will be working closely with Murphy”, and this memo is the the first that I’ve heard about it.

    1. Crazy Dog Lady

      That is really frustrating! We’ve had a lot of that happen as of late under new leadership, and have asked several times to be kept in the loop. It’s often met with a lot of people pointing the blame – “He was supposed to tell you!” “No, she was supposed to!” – and no resolution. Hopefully your boss will give you a decent explanation for your new colleague…

    2. anonamasaurus

      It’s nice to be reminded I am not the only one this happens to, although I am sorry you also have to deal with this.

    3. AnonAnalyst

      My current boss also does this. She is a “no” on most of the items on the list, but this is by far my biggest issue in working with her.

      Yes, I have approached her about it (more than once). No, nothing has changed. So frustrating.

  13. Murphy

    Right? We met with them last week and nothing about this employee joining our division was mentioned. Just popped my head in and boss pretty much gave me a non-answer. He seemed surprised that I was asking, so I’m not sure he realizes I was mentioned by name and title. Eh, not the first time I’ve been out of the loop on something and it won’t be the last. Not even the most frustrating.

  14. Mimmy

    I don’t think I’ve *ever* had a “good boss” – I think these types are rare, unfortunately. The closest I came to anyone fitting the characteristics in this article was my supervisor in a temp position. She and I had many, many insightful talks and she wanted me to push past my comfort zone. Sadly, despite very nice colleagues, the organization was a bit dysfunctional.

  15. Anon and on and on...

    Anon for this at least, hopefully this anon name is unique-ish.

    I have a good boss now and I am so glad! Clear feedback, timely feedback, I can ask questions when I need to, changes are communicated well and often with explanations…yay!

    Other bosses I’ve had in the past:
    * The toxic one who swore in the office and talked about coworkers using epithets. (Not to them, just about them, but it was still really uncomfortable.) Mind you, this boss wasn’t avoiding people know that, but would talk about them using these labels in front of them. Rarely. But still it happened.
    * The one who had a completely reasonable view of what needed to be done, how to balanace workload, what was okay to ask of us and what wasn’t. But whose boss didn’t give them much authority and who never stood up and demanded it. This person needed the job and also was a people pleaser. Real pleasant to talk with. But very ineffective if something needed to be pushed back on.
    * The really nice one who provided really good feedback and had a clear plan for everything. And had…a great deal of optimism regarding their plan, ability to implement it, and political clout. Had the plan actually been something they could bring forward, this person was otherwise an excellent boss. Without that? Yeah, this person was telling us we’d temporarily be doing X for three months and then return to Y. Three months later we were all working for the boss of X and this person had no direct reports. Being able to read the situation properly also matters. (And several people did see what was coming – this wasn’t a surprise to the whole team, maybe half of it at most – so it’s not a case of a sudden change in direction.)

    1. CM

      I think every boss I’ve ever had has been good in some areas, not great in others (except for my first minimum-wage job, where he was all-around awful). I’ve never had a follow-them-to-the-end-of-the-earth kind of boss, but I’ve been lucky not to have anybody who would ever make the “worst of” list. In my last job, I really liked my boss to the point where I started job hunting partly because it looked like they were about to be pushed out. They did an amazing job being supportive and flexible and insulating our team from outside pressures. But after I left, I realized what a relief it was to no longer be working for them — no more being told one thing and then a few days later being emphatically told the opposite (“We NEVER do that” — huh?), no more vague pronouncements of truth followed by annoyance when I asked what it was based on, no more being forced to take positions that I couldn’t justify.

  16. MWKate

    I really want to share this with the other managers in my department, but I am not sure it would be taken the right way.

  17. Nic G

    My current boss is the best one I’ve ever had! Every 1:1, even when I have some issues to correct, is positive and always leaves me motivated. His approaches to my questions, need for help, issues, etc are empowering and insightful. He will ask me why I think a certain way if necessary. He’s always patient and kind. I’ve never had a boss this excellent before.

    1. babblemouth

      Same here. It’s such a wonderful feeling isn’t it? I never realized how bad my previous managers were until my current one.

  18. Delta Delta

    Disclaimer: I recently quit my job with no new job lined up. It is exactly for all the reasons you set forth here. Except for not demanding doctors notes, my soon to be ex-boss does not do anything from the list that would make him a good boss.

    It has taken me a very long time to realize that this person, who is good at his profession but not good at managing, is a Bad Boss. It’s unfortunate really.

  19. Franzia Spritzer

    This list reassures me to have confidence in my assessment of my last boss, she was actually “terrible”. She didn’t insist I offer a liver, or crash my wedding, or cause my cat to die or anything, but according to this list she was not a good boss. She didn’t do any of this stuff, at all, like not even close… if only I didn’t have to use her as a reference :c

  20. Ann N. Mous

    My current boss is a “no for everything on the list. She never gives any positive feedback, waits to give negative feedback at reviews, and never clearly communicates expectations. She has also made derogatory comments. I really do believe that people quit managers not jobs. I have been actively looking and hope to have a new opportunity soon, hopefully with a better manager.

  21. Cassie

    My main boss is a pretty good boss, in that he treats me like an adult, he asks for my input most of the time (when he doesn’t, I feel comfortable offering my opinion when it’s important), and he gives me the freedom to do things any way I want as long as it gets done. Actually, since he’s a technical person, he may not even know how to get these things done, just that they need to be done. He is very respectful of everyone, sometimes even to a fault.

    However, he doesn’t give me any feedback, aside from an occasional “good job!” – usually after a big project. I just have to assume that I’m doing okay, since he is not saying anything different. I think he is sometimes weak in managing administrative people – one other admin struggled under his supervision because he expected her to just pick up on stuff, and she didn’t. She had a number of weaknesses that she probably could have improved on, but he was very hands-off and could not coach her to do better. (He also tried to have me help her to do better, but very unofficially, so that was pointless).

  22. Schmooples and the Binkie-Boo

    I’m working for the first decent boss and organisation I’ve been with in years and I appreciate them even more thanks to AAM as you’ve made me notice some subtle but important things. Example: I wondered whether we were expected to sort anything for my manager’s birthday (cards are a thing here) and was categorically told no, it should always be someone more senior (usually the person’s line manager). I only appreciated the correct directional flow thanks to AAM!

  23. bohtie

    I vote that sometime we have a Good Boss Thread, only because I have an amazing boss for the first time in my life and it warms my heart to hear about other people’s.

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