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Human leader vs. traditional boss: What’s the difference?


Whether you’re a seasoned manager, recently promoted into a leadership role or you are responsible for an entire team of leaders, everyone should be asking the same question: How can I (or we) exercise more effective, influential and empowering leadership?

The answer tends to lie in management style: Is your approach to leadership geared for the “traditional” boss? Or, are you a human leader?

In this blog we’ll explore:

  • What is a traditional boss vs. a human leader?
  • Why does management style matter – and why is one style undeniably better than the other in today’s dynamic workplace?
  • How can you ultimately enjoy greater productivity, stronger performance and improved relationships within your team?

What’s a traditional boss?

  • More formal, distant relationships with employees typically characterized by power and control
  • Process and metric driven
  • Business-first mindset

Traditional bosses aren’t unlike the school principal with the power to punish or reward. Remember, as a student, how the last thing you wanted was to get in trouble and go to the principal’s office?

In the same way, traditional bosses are authoritarian figures who serve as the embodiment of hierarchical power in the workplace. Their influence comes from their:

  • Rank or seniority
  • Day-to-day influence over others
  • Direct control over employees’ workload and assignments, salaries and career advancement

They’re typically a more distant figure with whom employees interact at certain times, such as dry weekly check-ins, disciplinary or “problem” meetings and annual reviews. Not surprisingly, these tend to be experiences that employees can view as negative or stress inducing.

As a result, many employees feel a sense of dread or anxiety whenever they have to speak to their manager. Employees are motivated to stay in the good graces of these managers to avoid any unpleasant conversations or consequences. Instead, they hope to earn rewards in the form of good reviews, salary raises or promotions.

Traditional bosses also have a mindset of “it’s all about business here, let’s leave our emotions and personal issues at the door.” Certainly, this can be a well-intentioned approach to avoid messy issues that cause distractions. However, it’s unrealistic. Whether managers choose to acknowledge it or ignore it, people do bring their personal issues and stressors with them to work and it is a factor that impacts their productivity, performance and relationships with colleagues.

Additionally, the business-first mindset leads traditional bosses to rely heavily on processes and metrics to set goals and assign work for their team. They don’t really consider the human factors and experiential side of work – they’re all about the numbers, tasks and workflow that are necessary to meet targets and get results.

What’s a human leader?

  • A coach and facilitator who maintains active, two-way engagement with team members
  • Empathetic and emotionally intelligent (high EQ)
  • Understanding of how culture, environment and team dynamics impact productivity and performance

Human leadership really could be another term for servant leadership. Human leaders want to serve employees by enabling their productivity and, ultimately, helping them achieve their goals. They are humans first, and managers second.

Here’s some attributes on human leaders:

  • Present and engaged with employees (an open-door policy can help)
  • Check with employees regularly about their workload, as well as to solicit any concerns or feedback
  • Practice active listening
  • Provide ongoing feedback – including positive feedback and recognition
  • Remove obstacles and barriers in an employee’s way

Human leaders often ask:

  • What are your personal and professional goals?
  • How can I help?
  • What tools can I give you?
  • What other resources do you need?

In this way, they are still an authority figure, but also a guide and a coach who offers support. Their influence comes from their connection with employees, as well as the trust they’ve built with them. They don’t just have power, they seek to empower others.

This requires human leaders to be empathetic with the human experience. Businesses are made up of people, after all. That’s why human leaders stay attuned to what’s going on with their employees – even sensing when someone seems “off” – and consider these factors when assigning work and establishing goals. Employees are allowed to have good days and bad days, and it’s all part of the course of doing business.

Of course, human leaders expect employees to deliver on their performance goals and hold them accountable, but they also understand that they have to create an environment of psychological safety in which strong performance is possible. Human leaders recognize the value in enabling employees to use their voice and:

  • Show up as their authentic selves
  • Ask questions
  • Offer new ideas
  • Push back or provide constructive criticism
  • Seek support

Psychological safety means that employees are able to do all these things without fear of negative consequences.

Lastly, human leaders have a keen understanding of how workplace culture, the work environment and team dynamics all create an “employee experience” that can impact the business.

Why human leadership is the future

After defining what these concepts mean, it should be clear that human leaders are more likely to be effective than traditional bosses.

We’ve all heard this popular adage: “Employees don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” And it’s true! Fear- and power-based leadership doesn’t motivate people for the long term. Having employees dread interactions with their manager is hardly the model of a healthy manager-employee dynamic either. Amid the war for talent and The Great Resignation, a traditional boss leadership style will only chase employees away and hinder recruiting efforts as word of mouth spreads among prospective job candidates.

On the other hand, human leadership offers companies compelling long-term benefits:

  • Boosts employee morale, as they feel celebrated, appreciated and respected
  • Better motivates employees, beyond money or other tangible rewards
  • Increases employee wellness and productivity
  • Strengthens manager-employee relationships
  • Models the right behaviors from the top down and better trains the next generation of leaders
  • Improves employee retention

So, what has driven this evolution in the predominant management style?

The COVID-19 pandemic, a global humanitarian crisis, changed the workplace and employees forever. How?

  • Employees, now accustomed to working remotely or on hybrid schedules, expect greater flexibility and autonomy over their work and their work day.
  • In some cases, remote work led to employee burnout or people experienced challenging personal circumstances related to the pandemic. Now, employees prioritize their wellness, mental health and loved ones. Generally, our culture is more averse to a business-first, people-second mindset.
  • During the pandemic, managers and team members alike gained a greater awareness of and respect for colleagues’ personal lives and responsibilities. We even got to see glimpses into colleagues’ home lives via video meetings. As a result, it’s commonplace for employees to bring their whole selves to work, discuss their personal lives and have more casual interactions.

Additionally, a generational shift is underway. Baby Boomers, generally the holders of more traditional leadership styles, are aging out of the workforce. Millennials are entering management and Generation Z is entering the workforce.

In the not-too-distant future, these younger generations will dominate the workforce. They have much different needs and expectations for their workplace. Part of this involves wanting less formal, more supportive and interactive relationships with their managers. Companies that want to keep pace and be competitive must adapt to evolving employee preferences.

How to get started becoming a human leader

1. Engage in self-evaluation

As a leader, one of the most important exercises you can engage in is a self-assessment. Be willing to look within and ask yourself tough questions on how you can improve your management style and become a human leader. Examples:

  • How can you sharpen your skills?
  • What are your shortcomings?
  • How are you investing in yourself?
  • What makes you uncomfortable when leading others, and why?

2. Take leadership courses

You should have an idea of the areas in which you need to improve based on your self-assessment. Seek out leadership courses and training, beyond standard leadership training, targeting these areas. It’s a great idea to focus on the soft skills in demand for human leaders and topics that are relevant to the modern workplace – such as EQ, managing across generations and managing effectively in remote environments.

3. Find peer support

Is there another manager you know whose style differs from your natural style, but they’ve been successful and have a great rapport with their team? Do you know a manager who seems to be a well-established and talented human leader? Talk to them and learn from their insight and tips. It doesn’t have to be a manager within your business unit or even at your company.

4. Listen to your team

Ask your team what you’re doing right, what you should change and how you can better support them – and be willing to act on their feedback. This is the quickest and most honest litmus test for how you’re doing as a leader.

And remember: If they hesitate to give you feedback, that is feedback. It tells you that there’s a lack of trust and transparency on your team and you need to improve your relationship with employees.

Summing it all up

A traditional boss is process and metrics oriented, has a business-first mindset, maintains more formal relationships with their team and derives their influence from their position. In contrast, a human leader is more of a coach and facilitator, displays high EQ, understands how culture and team dynamics impact performance, maintains regular two-way communication with employees and derives their influence from their relationships with team members. Human leadership is and will remain the predominant, preferred leadership style in the workplace. To help you, we’ve outlined a few easy ways that you can get started honing your own human leadership skills.

Want to read more about being an effective leader? Download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.