Here’s why you shouldn’t try to be the ‘fun boss’ at work

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Moya Crockett
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It’s a tempting character to play – but it could easily backfire. 

Getting a promotion or starting a new job is exciting. But if it means you’ll suddenly have other employees answering directly to you, it can also be daunting. Being a manager doesn’t come instinctively to everybody – and filling the shoes of ‘the boss’ can be especially tricky if you’re keen for everyone to like you, or if you’ve previously been friends with the colleagues you’re now supervising.

As a result, it’s understandable that many people fall into the trap of playing the ‘fun boss’, particularly in organisations where the work culture is more relaxed and informal. We’ve all known a fun boss. Loud and charismatic, they’re the last to leave after-work drinks on a Friday night, and treat their subordinates more like their mates – the professional equivalent of a mother who insists she and her daughter are ‘more like best friends’. They’re Amy Poehler in Mean Girls, dancing in the school auditorium with a video camera, and usually, they mean well.

But according to recent research, managers should resist the urge to take on this role if they want their employees to genuinely trust and respect them. The study, published in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment, examined the relationship between different workplace personality types and how these characteristics are perceived by others. 

Researchers found that bosses who are perceived as being fun, hedonistic and mischievous – described as leaders who enjoyed taking risks and testing limits, and who offered “good times” – are also associated with lower levels of integrity and accountability. In other words, while they’re good company, they are also seen as potentially being unreliable and irresponsible.

In a similar vein, managers who are perceived as particularly attention-seeking or over-confident are also viewed as less trustworthy.

“Come on, everybody: to the pub!” – a fun boss in action

The study was conducted by researchers at Hogan Assessments, the company behind a range of internationally-used workplace personality tests, who analysed personality data on 3,500 leaders from 30 organisations they’d worked with across different countries and industries.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, researchers Kimberly and Darin Nei say that naturally outgoing managers shouldn’t try to tamp down their personalities, or feel like they have to be dull and corporate in order to succeed.

“It is natural that we are attracted to people whom we perceive to be inspiring, fun, and engaging. It makes sense that you need a little charisma or pizzazz to stand out from others and get noticed,” they write.

“However, too much of this may be a bad thing in the eyes of your team members. Unchecked charisma will lead to a reputation of self-absorption and self-promotion. 

“When team members get the sense that you are focused on your own concerns and ideas, they feel unsupported.”

Don’t feel like you have to be everyone’s friend as well as their leader

So how should a good manager behave? According to the study, leaders are perceived as having higher levels of honesty, integrity and dependability when they are less hedonistic and mischievous, and more conscientious (described as having “a preference for structure and rules”) and prudent – defined in this research as being “conforming, dependable, and [displaying] self-control”.

That might sound boring, but in reality, most employees don’t want a boss they can go to the pub with – they want a boss who is trustworthy, straightforward and reliable.

“Trying to be liked and known as ‘the fun boss’ can tarnish your reputation in the long run,” write the researchers.

“It’s OK to stay out of the limelight and keep some space between you and your team. It sends signals that you are there for their professional benefit and that they can rely on you when needed.”

Images: Getty Images 


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Moya Crockett

Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.