I always like to hear what people say about poor leaders they have experienced because we can learn so much from them. At some recent leadership workshops I facilitated, we discussed leaders who have inspired us and what was disappointing and needed improvement. I found some common complaints.
We always feel uplifted and boosted by the positive comments, but it is the critical comments that we learn most from. Here’s what came out of the workshops.
Sometimes sincere people come across as indecisive. Frequently, their problem is they see all sides of a disagreement and genuinely want to reach a compromise that works for everyone. They wear themselves out trying to develop solutions. In the end, as the Aesop fable goes, they end up pleasing no-one. They keep passing the decisions to others, which is good for delegating, but there are many decisions the leader must make themselves.
Making a well thought-out decision in a timely way is essential for all leaders. We don’t always make the right decision, but we learn from the results. Delaying a decision can be frustrating when people are trying to move forward. If you can, help the indecisive person to prioritise by devising for them a list or matrix of scenarios to facilitate better decisions — boards of management often do this.
We’ve all encountered people with rigid beliefs and practices. They slow things up considerably at times, though there will be occasions when they’re proved correct. If you are being stubborn, think about whether you are in fact being too rigid and not open to new ways. If you’re not in a position to move these people sideways, patience and retaining an open mind and interest in new solutions are key to affecting improved outcomes.
This is a disappointing tendency to not take responsibility and pass the buck – an indicator that management isn’t working properly. If you keep your office door shut most of the time, and don’t find out what is going on when there is a problem but happily blame others, this is an example of very poor leadership.
A good leader takes responsibility. They don’t point fingers and start blaming, but rather work to solve problems. And ultimately, as leader, they take responsibility for their team’s actions.
This really drives people wild. When managers go into martyr mode and complain, it is even worse. Some managers act like no one can do their job or help out, when in fact they don’t want help and feel it is their precious skills that are needed. Many managers who won’t delegate avoid it because they don’t trust their people.
What can be done? It starts with training and ensuring your people can take on various tasks. Empower them to step up and give them challenges and opportunities. If you work for someone who won’t delegate, help carry the load, unobtrusively, where possible. Sometimes the non-delegator has to realise (the hard way) how much a team effort actually makes all the difference.
Some people are over-sensitive and get too emotional at work — not a good quality if you lead others. Not everyone’s facial expression is a bland mask. There’ll be those among your colleagues who you’ll know are annoyed the instant someone makes a comment. It’s like weather: when we’re told a typhoon is about to hit, most of us will duck for cover. So, too, with the over-sensitive, highly reactive colleague or manager. Their face darkens or becomes mutinous and everyone scurries for their cubicle. It makes for a volatile working environment.
You can help by practising what the Japanese call “pouring water on a frog’s face”. The frog remains calm in the face of adversity, so the saying goes. More importantly, the “frog” can help regulate its environment by setting a good example to others who jump the minute something isn’t “right”.
Bias or favouritism
If we show bias and have favourites at work, this is a lack of respect for everyone in the team. It’s human to have preferences, because we all work better with those we find to be more congenial. If you’re a manager, however, favouritism (perceived or actual) is going to cause office squalls. Set the tone for everyone including yourself, and make clear your expectations of work processes, behaviours and outcomes. It’s a barometer that most people will understand.
Vague or empty promises
When a manager says, “I’ll catch up with you later”, and comes and goes with no sign of following up, this is an example of being vague and not delivering on promises. Staff respond to managerial direction; when it is vague, or words become empty promises, it causes frustration.
This quality often materialises early in office relationships. You only have to encounter it once or twice in your worklife and you’ll recognise it henceforth. Use tact and quiet persistence to pin such people down by setting your own boundaries. Give feedback to those who are vague by providing examples. If this is you, and you recognise you are vague on your direction, focus on being clear, consistent and delivering promises.
Incompetence is evident when there are no quality results from the work output — no runs on the board. Sometimes this links directly to inadequate team goals from the leader. No one respects a leader who cannot deliver results.
‘Michael’, an experienced relationship director, quit his new job during the probation period because his manager was incompetent and hid behind a facade of activity and empty promises. Michael had inklings that his workplace was dysfunctional almost from the moment he set foot there. Everyone was doing their own thing and induction was non-existent. Michael did his best to ascertain his role KPIs and expectations with the vague manager, even going higher when answers weren’t forthcoming. In the end, he decided that his own reputation was likely to suffer. Michael later heard that the manager pretended that Michael was “unable to cope”.
In a sense, incompetence is the sum total of the first seven bad qualities we’re canvassing. By systematically addressing and pruning them, you don’t end up with number eight and people grumbling.
I often wonder how these people make it to the organisation’s leadership team. Consider what can you do to ensure these are nor your leadership flaws.
This is an edited version of a piece that first appeared at SmartCompany.