The key to making employees happier

A movie scene that wants to make it abundantly clear who's in charge typically has the boss in a suit, sitting behind a big desk in a spacious office, while all the workers hunker down in undersized cubicles. Because that's what bosses, do. They separate themselves from the masses and get special privileges. If some dirty job needs doing, don't ask the boss!

Well, turns out, if you want to be a boss with a productive workforce, that's exactly the wrong path to take. A new paper, Boss Competence and Worker Well-being by Benjamin Artz, Amanda H. Goodall and Andrew J. Oswald, found the secret to worker productivity, and it seems like it should have been obvious all along.

The strongest indicator of worker well-being? The boss's competence. The researchers asked survey participants "Could your supervisor do your job if you were away?" and "Does the supervisor know their own job well?"

When the answers to these questions were compared with employee satisfaction, the researchers found that "a movement from Not True at All (that the supervisor could do the person's job) to Very True would be associated with a quadrupling of the level of job satisfaction."

Now, it's not practical for a CEO to be able to fix a computer problem, make a sales call, file a patent and fill out government paperwork for affirmative action reporting. Actually, it would be impossible to find one person who could fill that position.

However, the relationship between employee well-being and supervisor competency is so high that line managers need to be able to step in and do the job they're asking their employees to do.

Not only do they need to be capable, they need to be willing.

I will never forget the summer I worked as a cashier for a giant retail chain. One day, the computer system went down, so we couldn't scan products. Because products had no price tags, a price check had to be run for every item brought to the cash registers.

Lines snaked through the store, and all the department managers came to run price checks for us. All cashiers were told there would be no breaks because of the computer problems. Then, right at 12 noon, the entire management team went to lunch, at the snack bar where we could see them. All of them. Sitting there, eating lunch, talking and laughing, while we dealt with angry customers in long lines.

You can guarantee the staff at this store lost whatever respect we once had for the managers. Were we willing to go the extra mile any more? Absolutely not. In fact, I quit shortly after that when the opportunity arose to pick up more hours at my second job.

Contrast this with my other experience working for another big retail organization, a grocery chain that has appeared consistently on Fortune's Best Company to Work For list. Even though my job was in the corporate office, I was required to train in every area of the grocery store. I had to work seafood, serve pizza, stock shelves and learn to run a cash register.

At Christmas time, the corporate offices operated with skeleton staff because as many as people as possible were in the stores helping out. No wonder the company's employees love their managers. They're competent and willing to jump in.

Often when something awful comes up at work, the boss leaves it to the staff to handle. Instead, if the boss is willing to get involved, get her hands dirty and do actual work, she'll gain the respect of her staff -- and employee job satisfaction will increase.

Employees who are happy with their jobs work harder. Harder workers bring in more money for the business. If you're a boss, learn how to do your employees' jobs.