The Sixth Key: Innovation in Boss-subordinate Relationship

The Sixth Key: Innovation in Boss-subordinate Relationship

I proposed that management innovation requires seven keys to unlock at the same time. I will now discuss in some detail the Sixth Key—Innovation to change the mindset and behavior of boss-subordinate relationship.

The company is composed of boss-subordinate relationships from the CEO down the line throughout the organization. For many employees, their boss is the biggest presence in the company and determines their behavior. The subordinates grow or suffer depending on their boss.

In management innovation, the new policies and ways of management are conveyed from the CEO down the chain of command, so how it is conveyed and the attitude with which it is conveyed from the boss to subordinates make critical difference.

The Challenge in Fostering Professional Growth of Your Subordinates

By nature of my job, I have the opportunity to interact with many management people at all levels from executives to first level managers. I feel only a small minority of bosses are seriously taking the time and effort to work on development and growth of their subordinates. Everyone seems to be preoccupied with getting their own job done, reporting to their bosses, and producing volumes of reports. It’s not that they don’t desire to foster the professional growth of subordinates, but they just don’t have any time. They reprimand the subordinates when the job is not getting done. Of course, they demand to do this and that, but whether their orders are clearly conveyed or understood by the subordinate is on shaky grounds. If a manager is asked, “Are you doing your best to foster professional development of your subordinates?” few can say, “Yes.”

It’s extremely rare that bosses are consciously taking the time to develop their subordinates, praise their strength, and appropriately point out issues to overcome for growth–working to best accelerate the growth of each and every subordinate. If it is done, it is done haphazardly with little planning. The boss has just their own experience and example of others to go on.

Even if they are very aware that developing their subordinates is their job, they don’t really understand how to facilitate their growth other than delegating work one after another. The subordinates falter when tasks are too difficult, and become complacent if it is too easy. There are few easy jobs, so just delegating tasks seems to be a challenge for the boss.

Many bosses may think they are using their subordinates as tools of execution and feel a little guilty. But, they rationalize “that is the way it was for me.” They have surely studied the management basics in a training course, but they are just swamped with work from day to day.

Actually, if the management share with their peers their experiences, know how, and what they learned from their mistakes, it would be an invaluable pool of assets. However, the sense of competition and playing against one another typically keeps it from happening.

Of course, as an exception, there are great bosses. They are very competent and well respected. They set an example for their subordinates and occasionally provide effective advice. However, their skills and know how are not shared. They are far and few in between, so the boss-subordinate relationship and how the bosses embrace developing their people are inconsistent and vary greatly across the company.

How to Change the Mindset and Behavior of Boss-subordinate Relationship

Development of subordinates is not all that difficult. With certain awareness and training, usually managers regardless of levels can make dramatic improvements in short order.

Furthermore, development of subordinates is not just bosses’ problem, but it takes both the boss and the subordinate to change their mindset and behavior in parallel. Therefore, I have established and help implement in many companies what I call “Boss-subordinate Mindset and Behavior Innovation Program.” It yields immediate results and lot of discovery for the participants with minimal workload burden. Let me introduce how this is done.

Let’s assume the Program consists of all 100 department directors present in the company; they are the bosses and their direct reports are the subordinates. Divide the 100 directors into 20 teams of 5. Members of the team should represent diverse cross section of the company. Each team will meet once a month for 4 consecutive months. Each director will present and discuss their development efforts for 3 select subordinates in 5 meetings (kickoff meeting plus four meetings).

Before the first meeting, the directors will write up and agree with each of 3 subordinates, their specific growth challenges, growth targets, and specific approach by the subordinate and the director himself to achieve the targets. This will be done in the fashion I have described in “The Fifth Key: Human Resource Development Committee.”

At the first Program meeting, directors will present the agreements to the other 4 directors for their comments and advise. In the subsequent 4 monthly Program meetings, stimulate one another by sharing and discussing progress on what you have done to foster growth, accomplishments and learning from failures. When the director and the subordinate seriously work together to attain specific targets for growth over 4 months period, mindset and behavior will change significantly. The pair should meet 10 to 15 minutes before and after each Program meetings. You will find that these brief meetings to be most rewarding for both.

In the 4 months process through sharing and discussing with your peers the know how and learning from failures you have experienced, probably for the first time in their careers, they will develop a good feel for what it means to foster the development of your subordinates. It will build confidence and make them feel at ease that everyone shares similar problems. Furthermore, it will build sense of unity and rapport among peers in the same team across the organization, and gain momentum for the management innovation process.

The subordinates will be inspired by their boss’s care and commitment to their professional growth and it will foster their appreciation for the management and the company. When they see that their boss who they highly respect is committed to the management innovation process, they will feel responsible to do their part.

The Program greatly improves internal communication for daily tasks by facilitating to share awareness of problems and concerns among peers across the company. It strengthens relationship and teamwork for all tasks. It improves openness and agility of the entire company.

A Note on Boss-subordinate Mindset and Behavior Innovation Program

As I have explained above, this Program yields immediate results. It is highly recommended, but there is a point of caution to implement the program.

The Program meetings by team of 5 managers require professional facilitator to provide know how and hints for developing the professional growth of their subordinates. Otherwise you risk the meeting to fall into a low level discussion for exchanging gripes about problems with their subordinates.

The role of the facilitator is to immediately detect and isolate where the problem resides–with the boss, the subordinate, or both—and provide appropriate advice to enable positive problem solving.

In many cases, with no ill intent by anyone, misunderstanding and bad feelings are caused by something small and we need to resolve this. The facilitator must prevent someone from hesitating to say something important, stop someone that lack balance from saying too much, and try to undo emotional entanglement.

When I support this effort, initially I will facilitate all discussions, show member from the HR department how it is done, train facilitators in the company and gradually have them take over. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” so if you are interested to implement this Program, please to let me know.

For any suggestions or questions, please feel free to send me a mail to I will get back to you right away.


▼ 7keys to accelerate Management Innovation
The Seven Keys to Accelerate Management Innovation
Need to Unlock Seven Keys to Start and Accelerate Management Innovation
The First Key:Change Vision and Strategy, and Let Everybody Know
The Second Key:Rapid Improvement of Existing Businesses
The Third Key:Developing Multiple New Businesses
The Fourth Key:Management Innovation Team
The Fifth Key:Human Resource Development Committee
The Sixth Key:Innovation in Boss-subordinate Relationship
The Seventh Key:Positive Feedback and Active Listening