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

by Abe Turner | Manager, Brand Advancement

This was originally published in the Insperity blog. Read the full blog here.

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?

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.

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 are usually experiences that employees can view as negative or stress inducing. Because of this, many employees feel a sense of dread or anxiety when speaking to their manager.

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 their professional life, and it is a factor that impacts their productivity, performance and relationships with colleagues.

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 are some attributes of human leaders:

  • Present and engaged with employees (an open-door policy can help)
  • Check in with employees about workload and ask for concerns or general feedback
  • Practice active listening
  • Provide ongoing feedback – including positive feedback and recognition
  • Remove obstacles 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.

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. 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?

The COVID-19 pandemic 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 workday.
  • 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.

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. Companies that want to keep pace and be competitive must adapt to evolving employee preferences.

Interested in learning more about becoming a human leader? Read the rest of our blog on including four ways you can get started here.

Contact us for a free consultation!