The Difference Between Being the Boss and Being Bossy

Meryl_StreepA conversation with a friend last week led me to this subject.  As we’ve explored previously, Sheryl Sandberg notes in her book, Lean In, that most women leaders were called “bossy” growing up – my friend and I are no exceptions.  In fact, there are two social campaigns in play at the moment:  1) Sheryl Sandberg’s movement to discontinue use of the word “bossy”, and 2) a “She’s So Boss” campaign encouraging women to take leadership roles in organizations.  (There is yet another camp that objects to the word “boss” in general, claiming that it’s an unfortunate and derogatory term held over from the days of slavery, but that’s another blog.)

You are not the boss of me.

My friend and I discussed that the word bossy is used primarily to describe women.  I have never heard a man described as bossy – but that may just be me.  I’m a little dismayed that this is a subject of conversation at all, and yet…here I go.

Incorrect use over time tends to distort the real meaning of some words.  Girls are called “bossy” in much the same way that women are called “assertive” – the term is often used to mean aggressive, bitchy, insert-your-negative-adjective-here – not consistent with the real meaning of assertive.

Whether you use the terms or not, it’s important to understand the difference between being a good boss/good leader and just being bossy.  Here are our thoughts:

Good Boss:  Provides constructive feedback (usually in private) to let you know what is expected of you to perform at a higher level

Bossy:  Gives orders for specific tasks and either instructs how to accomplish them or critiques the way in which they were accomplished (can you say: Micro-manager?), not usually in a pleasant tone of voice

Good Boss:  Articulates clear vision to employees; asks for input as to how best to get there

Bossy:  Thinks s/he knows more than the person doing the job; is not interested in feedback

Good Boss:  Sets the path to success and (usually along with employees), breaks the goal into achievable tasks; enlists support around the common goal

Bossy:  Sets goals and assigns tasks without providing clear direction

Good Boss:  Makes sure employees have the training and tools to accomplish the goals – encourages and facilitates growth of new skills and experiences for employees

Bossy:  Doesn’t even consider whether employees have the right tools to accomplish the tasks (or depending on the level of insecurity, actually sets employees up for failure)

Good Boss:  Shares credit for success, celebrates teamwork (What’s that old Harry Truman quote: It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.)

Bossy:  Takes credit for success; blames employees for failure

After I read Sheryl Sandberg’s chapter on Bossiness, I called my Mom and told her that she should not have called me “bossy”; she should have said, “I detect leadership qualities in you, dear”.  For all those who work with women – or have daughters, take note.