I’ve had over 30 jobs in my life and that means I’ve had 30+ bosses, leaders, and managers to deal with. I’ve worked for almost every kind of boss you can imagine: the boss who shouts orders, the boss who seems to care but fails to back you up, and the boss who is a genuinely compassionate person.
Over time I began to realize that all leaders, like apps or buildings, have a certain design. Some of the ones I worked for had a leadership design that made doing work easier and my office life enjoyable. While others had such bad leadership design that not only was it hard to do good work, it made me not want to work at all.
When I became a coach and started coaching the kind of people I used to work for, I started to wonder what might happen if you applied design principles to leadership.
Could you design a better boss?
Here’s what I found:
Leadership as a Function of Design
Adobe identifies 4 golden rules of User Design¹:
- Place users in control of the interaction
- Make it comfortable to interact with
- Reduce excess guessing and thinking
- Make the experience consistent
These are all great standards to create a positive user experience. But they are also great standards for good leadership design.
1. Place users in control of the interactions:
Most founders, CEOs, and Senior managers I coach try to control the people around them.
They think, “if I can just get them to do what I want them to do then I’m a good leader”. The result is that they end up bullying or pressuring their teams to work as they do. But great leadership isn’t about creating clones, it’s about inspiring people to bring their best selves to work.
If you want to create a good user experience, you must work to let the users have enough control so they can do what they want while also creating the right kind of boundaries so they don’t get lost or confused. This is exactly the same for great leadership.
If you give your team clear boundaries, goals, and expectations while encouraging them to do their best work, come up with creative solutions, and feel responsible for what they contribute, you’ll have a team that is committed, focused, and inspired.
2. Make it comfortable to interact with.
If you were scared to use an app, you would never open it, if you were afraid that your coffee maker would kill you, you’d buy a new coffee maker. Good design means a design that is helpful, unobtrusive, and comfortable.
But most leaders don’t get this. They don’t understand that fear is the #1 motivation that exists in the workplace. They don’t get that people are afraid to be honest because they might get yelled at or fired. They don’t get that people are afraid to take risks because they’re worried their boss won’t have their backs.
Great leaders understand what’s at stake for their teams and work to make their teams comfortable in working through challenges together.
They demand respect by setting clear expectations and standards, but they are also open to challenges to their thinking, direct feedback, and radical candor. These leaders understand that if the team trusts their leadership they will work better together especially when hard choices have to be made.
They don’t let fear go unchecked, instead, they choose to be responsible for the impact of their leadership and they use that responsibility to inspire the team to work together.
3. Reduce excess guessing and thinking
I’ve worked with leaders that think out loud so often that their teams don’t know what strategy to follow. I’ve also worked with leaders who keep everything so close to the vest their teams are shocked when they suddenly change directions or tell them they’re very disappointed in the work they produced.
The problem is the same in both cases, the team doesn’t understand what the leader wants.
Great design might challenge the user to think harder or come up with a creative solution, but they never ask the user to do more guessing or thinking than they need to.
Great leaders also challenge their teams to come up with creative solutions and do inspiring work.
4. Make the experience consistent
The last principle of both user design and leadership design is consistency. Great leaders have to ensure that the consistency is both inward and outward. The company culture is being reflected in a way that individuals feel comfortable and at ease (rather than walking on eggshells) and the mission is being consistently utilized.
When leaders are all over the place, it makes for a bumpy ride for the team members. One that prohibits successful work and instead projects the leader’s needs over the company’s.
I’m not saying that the environment has to be cold and heartless, or that the leader should act without emotion. I’m saying that the general goal of both the business and the company culture should be at the forefront of the decision-making and execution within the business.
The goal for leaders today is to get results. However poor leadership design leads to poor morale and experience for the do-ers in the company. As a company continues to grow, the leadership should do so as well. I have no doubt that the design elements listed in this article will continue to play a role in a good leadership design. Placing the user at the front, making it comfortable, reducing guesswork, and being consistent are the ways to design a good boss.