How to be a tough but respected manager

Here are 8 tips to help create a healthy and productive workplace.
 How to be a tough but respected manager

Most professionals have had bosses or managers they do not like. Perhaps these supervisors are too demanding, grouchy, negative, or downright mean. Or they may be too soft and timid, failing to offer opportunities for growth or to help further their team members’ careers.

So now you are a manager — what kind of supervisor are you? Do you offer serious, constructive criticism? Are you authoritative to the point of being annoying and feared by your workers? Or are you so worried you will alienate your staff that you are too easy-going, acting like a buddy instead of a boss?

“When managers have high expectations, employees are actually happier — and happy people are more productive,” said Uma Gupta, a professor of business at the State University of New York at Buffalo State and a corporate trainer and motivational speaker. “But it’s equally important for managers to back off when they see that someone is struggling.”

That sounds logical, but here is the problem: Many managers fall into their supervisory roles without any training. Few receive guidance on how to lead and encourage, and the reality is that transitioning into a managerial role takes thought, study, and practice. Too often, new managers struggle with the balance between demanding high performance while still being liked and respected by their staff.

As a result, unseasoned managers make mistakes. They pretend to motivate their employees but silently fear that if the project flops, or the client walks, they as the supervisor may be in trouble, Gupta said. Some managers wrongly believe that being tough means being unreasonable. They may regularly correct employees who make blunders, being critical versus constructive.

The bottom line, said Karin Tenelius, founder and CEO of Tuff Leadership Training in Stockholm, is that many of today’s supervisors — even young ones — still mirror the parent-child leadership model that has existed for decades. “Management hasn’t evolved or developed much from those historic times, and that’s why managers are stuck in a paradigm,” she noted.

Tenelius and Gupta offered the following advice on how managers can set rigorous expectations and demand high performance without alienating employees.

Do not settle. First and foremost, maintain high performance expectations, with the notion that you will not only be helping your company, but yourself and your staff as well. A manager who “raises the bar” will not only motivate employees, but continually push them to stretch their limits past their comfort zones, Gupta said.

Create an environment of safety and trust. Don’t be the boss your employees dread to visit. Instead, give them an open door they can walk through without fear of retribution. “Tell them, ‘I will never violate your trust or confidence,’” Gupta said. Good managers care about people, are interested in what they have to say, and possess excellent listening skills, Tenelius added.

Know your staff. Walk in your staff’s shoes and understand their skillsets, strengths, and weaknesses. Know what is holding them back, and what motivates or intimidates them, Gupta said. Sit down with your employees and explain what you expect of them. Ask yourself often how you have helped them improve and contributed to their professional growth. “We work harder for those who are more flexible and understanding,” added Gupta.

Believe in your staff. Some managers habitually offer solutions to their employees, instead of allowing them to use their own inventiveness or capacity for problem-solving. “People become engaged by getting the opportunity to contribute” and will respect managers who give them a chance to shine, Tenelius noted. “Trust employees to be creative and knowledgeable. Let them have an impact on decisions, and ask for their opinions.”

Be precise with praise. When complimenting an employee, be specific — otherwise praise has little meaning. “If you say, ‘Good job’, that’s what I call fairly useless praise,” Gupta said. Instead, pay tribute to your employee for completing a specific project or report, meeting a deadline, or helping to land a new client. Let the person know exactly what they did to deserve your approval.

Give employees authority. If your staff is dissatisfied with the work schedule, for example, allow them to create one that is more effectual without hurting the company, Tenelius said. If employees believe meetings are boring, give them some autonomy to try to improve the format. “Let them impact the structures,” she added.

Ask for input from your team in meetings. Start gatherings by asking employees about the most pressing issues to be discussed. “That way things will get done or move forward faster than if you try to drive your team,” Tenelius said.

Be cheerful. Finally, demonstrate that you are happy at work. “Everybody has stress; don’t go in and add to the unhappiness, which already has pervaded so many organisations,” Gupta said. “If the manager is happy and looks happy, it raises the level of satisfaction of the employees.”

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at