Half of employees have left a job because of a bad boss and low engagement scores continue to support the adage that people leave managers, not companies. That is why it’s important to detect a good boss, and that often begins with the way they communicate in the job interview.
You could ask a potential manager during an interview, “What is your communication style?” But you’re likely to get a response that is vague or aspirational, such as “My door’s always open” or “I’m a people-person.” And it’s not like you’re going to obtain the results of any manager’s personality assessment.
What you can do is pay close attention to clues and ask indirect questions to see what type of leader and communicator is about to hire you. You might be conditioned to only notice the extremes, recalling mentors who remain friends, or the traits of insufferable bosses, such as incompetence, rigidity, or corruptness. They’re a bad boss, and you’re a good employee.
But finding compatibility with a potential manager isn’t as dichotomous. Borrowing from Buddhist psychology, you might find it helpful to try to spot your “near enemies” instead of your “far enemies.” For example, the near enemy of a people-person isn’t someone who hates people, but rather someone who is more task-oriented.
Here are four sets of near-enemy manager types and how these leaders communicate, which will help you determine if you’re going to stay with the institution, or, as the saying goes, leave the manager.
People-Oriented or Task-Oriented
Starting with the example above, managers who are task-oriented are categorized as dominant and conscientious on personality frameworks such as the DiSC profile, while people-oriented bosses are considered influencers and steady. You might prefer a task-oriented boss who is decisive, efficient, and logical. You can identify this style in how orderly a manager conducts an interview. On the other hand, a people-oriented leader might meander a bit to seek greater input and cooperation from other members of the search committee and empathize with what the candidate is encountering.
Studies have shown that supervisors’ empathic communication style is exhibited by the use of first-person plural pronouns (“we”) and the use of fewer first-person singular (“I”). Although, second-person pronouns like “you” can go either way. A people-oriented manager might say “You will like working here,” but a task-oriented manager would say “I take care of this and you take care of that,” and you might appreciate the clearly stated roles or autonomy. Most employees, however, prefer the empathic, collective approach: “We serve our students” or “This is how we support our faculty.”
Scout or Soldier
When using a battlefield metaphor, a leader could be considered a general or commanding officer, but when it comes to navigating the work environment, and campus politics, all employees, managers, and subordinates can be either scouts or soldiers. According to Julia Galef, author of The Scout Mindset, a scout is driven by curiosity to see things as they are, not as they wish they were; whereas a soldier believes, often with unconscious motivations, they need to defend themselves, their ideas, and their department. Galef considers the scout mindset virtuous but scouts and soldiers are essential to all organizations.
During an interview, try to identify if the manager is comfortable being vulnerable. Do they ask questions or defer to the expertise of other campus departments? Do they have clear definitions of success and failure? If so, they might be a scout. A soldier also seeks success and failure but in a more risk-averse or competitive approach, comparing their departments or institutions to others, which can be good but in moderation. The optimal leader is one who balances both gaining new ground and protecting their employees and their department’s hard-won reputation and assets.
Assertive or Empowering
This set of traits is all about control. According to Stephen Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” a person in charge can assert control over four types of consequences (rewards and penalties) for their employees:
- Financial (salary, budgets)
- Psychic (recognition, respect)
- Opportunity (training, development)
- Responsibility (authority)
Ask about each of these and notice how much the manager wields his or her control over them.
The far enemy of an assertive boss is a passive manager, who might be resigned to circumstances and fate, qualifying decisions based on lack of state funding, market whims, or the desires of administrators and students.
A near enemy of the assertive boss, however, is one who is empowering, who recognizes that labor is the control and management’s job is to influence. If you’re a person who is more extrinsically motivated, then, sure, you might be better placed with a manager who rewards employees with pay raises, approval, promotions, and greater autonomy. But if you’re intrinsically motivated, seek an empowering boss who surrenders control.
Listener or Reader
Finally, a job interview is a great opportunity to see how a manager prefers to receive information. If a boss reads all of your application materials and asks you about every nitty-gritty detail, they are a reader. But if a manager is a listener, they might instead skim your CV and simply ask you for a general overview to see how well you weave themes together in your career narrative. Either style will carry over into your relationship if you are hired. Your manager might prefer to hear you summarize a report and read about it later.
These traits are more related to communication and preferred workflow instead of compatibility of personality. A reader might present as an assertive, task-oriented micromanager, or a reader might be a sign of effective scouting. A listener might be too passive to bother reading the details, or a listener might really care about your intrinsic motivation. There are combinations. The important part of the listener/reader dynamic is for the candidate to identify communication styles from a transactional standpoint.
You’re not going to find out all you need to know about a potential manager from a job interview. After all, you, the candidate, are the one being analyzed. But with so much riding on your job satisfaction, it’s important to learn as much as you can about who could be your next boss.