NEW YORK (MainStreet) About 20 million Americans loathe their jobs, according to the latest Gallup "State of the American Workplace" report. That means a fifth of the American workforce has that thousand-cubicle stare best summed up by a quote from Peter Gibbons from "Office Space": "So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life." But being a good boss is easy, right? Just skip the patronizing conversations about TPS reports.
Not exactly. In fact, being a bad boss could be all in our headsliterally. A new study suggests that people in a higher position of power empathize less with people in a lower position. In the study, titled "Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others," researchers found the powerful have a harder time mirroring other people's actions via the brain's mirror system, which indicates they are less likely to understand and empathize with others. If power can change how we think, it could also make it easier to ignore employees and repeat bad behavior without us even knowing it.
But just because a higher position might change how you perceive things, it doesn't mean you have to become a bad boss -- at least, not if you take the right precautions. Below, several experts weigh in on six ways to avoid becoming the office dreadnaught.
1. Forgetting the importance of empathy
Empathy is what can help earn the trust of your employees and let them know you care. If you find yourself getting so entangled in work you forget about your employees, don't panic sometimes all it takes to regain empathy is a reminder.
"When you remind people precisely about their dependence, they show [fewer] of the hallmarks of power," says Sukhvinder Obhi, senior corresponding author of the aforementioned study and neuroscientist at Wilifrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. Obhi says people are more likely to be empathetic when they know they're part of the team, not just the leader of it. By making your employees feel part of a group, it's likely that you will feel more connected as well.
2. Thinking it's all about the money
A good salary is an important reason for an employee to be happy, but it's not the only one. For example John Engel had ten employees underneath him at his own executive recruiter company. To motivate his workers, he offered generous incentives, like a trip to Japan if a team's quota was met, a high salary and performance bonuses. Still, his employees slumped at their desks, some even stopped showing up for work. He was close to firing when he stopped and asked them open-ended questions without commenting. Some employees said the incentives were "demotivating" and "led to unhealthy competition," recalled Engel. "What they were looking for from me was more information and direction - no amount of money would have motivated them."
Instead, look for what your employees need on an individual level, and use that as a motivator.
"Some people don't care about money," says Kathleen Brush, a leadership consultant with 20 years of experience. "Some people care more about the workplace, or working on something meaningful."
3. Thinking you can't get fired
Just because you're a boss, doesn't mean you can be lazy or negligible without consequence. Money-wise, bad bosses cost the U.S. between $450 billion and $550 billion each year, according to Gallup.
Aside from money, being a bad boss can cost you your reputation and make the workplace miserable for you as well. Mismanage your team, and you could be facing a host of problems, such as "undermining your authority, talking behind your back, teaming within a team...they lead to a lack of following [your] leadership," says Bob Kulhan, CEO of BusinessImprov.com.
4. Tuning out
If power can lessen one's empathy, it can also lessen a new boss's ability to listen. A bad boss stops listening to his employees; a good boss hears complaints, then weighs the problem and the person's needs.
"Leaders who are caring through compassionate behavior, inspire," says Emma Seppala, associate director at Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. It's a good rule: if your employees like you, they're more likely to follow you loyally.
Also, listen to your office's white noise. If your people are silently glued to their screens, or you notice a drop in attendance, your workplace could be cultivating stress; in turn, this could affect productivity. You don't need to install a game room for your employees to unwind. Instead, being personable and understanding can lift spirits.
"If someone is having a slow day...say 'Hey, I hate to pry, but I notice you're having a slow day. Is there anything I can do?'" recommends Brush. The personable factor can ease tension, and if you do it equally not picking favorites then the rest of the office will notice that it's O.K. to be off sometimes, that they're not always under the gun.
5. Mismanaging Millenials
The UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School estimates 34% of the workforce will be made up of millenials by 2014. It's a different type of generation, and winning those in the cohort with praise may be the best way to manage them.
"Millennials, unlike previous generations, don't respond to criticism unless it is sandwiched with encouragement, because they grew up in a self-esteem mode," says Susan Inoyue, author of the upcoming book Sawubona Leadership: The Bridge to Engaging a New Generation of Leaders, which focuses on the millennial generation. Inoyue suggests speaking to them in a way that "honors their gifts" with a healthy dose of reassurance.
But if you don't let a power trip go to your head and lead them with compassion, it shouldn't be difficult.
"If people know you care about them and respect them...you'll cultivate loyalty no matter the generation," says Seppala.
6. Believing leadership is a right, not a skill
Just because you were promoted doesn't necessarily mean you're automatically a good boss. Like a profession, leadership is a skill to be learned. Similarly, a new title might make you feel like you deserve respect, but that's not necessarily true.
"Your rank is what you earnstatus is what you earn from other people and can be taken away from other people," says Kulhan. That doesn't mean having to do everything right. In fact, knowing you don't have all the right answers and being able to fail without making a tragedy of it is a good way to increase your leadership skills.
If you're unsure of your leadership ability, be aware that most people are when they first become leaders. To improve, there are many options, from training workshops to articles online to books about the skill of leadership. Whatever you choose, it's important to step back and assess your skills and figure out how to make yourself a better people person.
"Never lose sight of the fact that as a leader, you're leading people," says Brush. "Management is a people's game."
--Written by Craig Donofrio for MainStreet