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Leadership problems 101: Your playbook for reversing bad management

leaders who don't lead

Do you suspect leadership problems in your organization? Maybe deadlines aren’t being met or the team’s performance is lagging. Perhaps employees on a certain team just seem generally unhappy and overly stressed. Or, turnover is spiking on a specific team.

All of these things are red flags for leadership problems.

When you notice these signs or maybe even others, it’s time to intervene before they escalate into bigger issues, undermining your business performance and chasing talented, valued employees away.

Two important things to remember in this discussion:

  • Conferring the title of leader on someone doesn’t automatically make them a leader. It’s a position of trust and respect that must be earned.
  • Employees don’t leave jobs – they leave managers.

What not leading looks like

How do you identify and define ineffective leadership? Which characteristics are typically present?

Ineffective leadership can cover a number of different behaviors. Some of the most common behaviors include:

Poor communication. Leaders who struggle often don’t communicate well with the people who report to them. For example, they don’t regularly check in with their people about their workload, well-being or career goals. In fact, they may have no idea what’s going on with their team personally or professionally, which can lead them to:

  • Make erroneous assumptions.
  • Have unrealistic expectations.
  • Be oblivious to looming problems, such as employee burnout.

And if they’re not talking to their people often, they probably aren’t listening to them much either. Listening just happens to be one of the most important leadership skills.

Additionally, managers with poor communication tend to not be as open and transparent as they could be, which can frustrate their team members.

Limited to no availability or accessibility to their team. So often, leaders say they have an open-door policy – but do they really? How often is the office door closed, even when it’s not warranted – sending a message to direct reports that they’re busy and to stay away? How often do questions and requests for meetings go unanswered? And, at the most basic level, does the team culture even encourage people to come to their manager to discuss questions or issues? Or, do people feel afraid or deterred from doing so?

Lack of prioritization of team development. Most employees want to keep expanding their knowledge and developing their skills to improve themselves and achieve their career goals. In this way, learning and development is a critical engagement and retention tool for employers to leverage. Furthermore, through learning and development, these employees can also greatly benefit their company as well by upskilling and supporting a future-ready business.

Managers who ignore this and don’t take a personal interest in how their team members want to be developed do so at their peril. It not only negatively impacts the company’s business performance and retention efforts, but it impacts individual employees as well by making them feel devalued and stagnant in their career growth.

Not open to or accepting of feedback. For so many managers, a self-evaluation of one’s own leadership can be a challenge. That’s why, as a manager, it’s critically important to listen to both the people you report to as well as the people who report to you. In fact, it’s the latter group that can provide the most honest feedback of your performance as a leader. We simply do not see ourselves the way others do. Typically, leaders who fail:

  • Do not engage in self-assessment.
  • Do not ask others for feedback.
  • Ignore or argue against the negative feedback they do receive.

As a result, they maintain blind spots over their performance and don’t identify areas for improvement, thus perpetuating a cycle of negative behaviors.

Ineffective leadership style. Some leaders are incredibly hands-off, not providing any direction and just letting employees figure it out on their own. Other leaders are micromanagers, hovering over their team members and monitoring their every move. Both types of managers will absolutely drive most employees crazy. To be effective, managers should have a balanced leadership style somewhere in the middle of these extremes, and their leadership style should align with the preferences and needs of their team members.

And then some managers are still stuck in the days of operating as a traditional boss figure, when the workplace has largely shifted toward human leadership. Today, most employees want their manager to act as a coach rather than an authoritarian.

Enablement of a toxic team culture. Leaders set the tone for their teams. More than anyone else on the team, managers influence the day-to-day environment in which people work.

There’s a strong correlation between ineffective leadership and negative attitudes and leadership styles, including fear-based leadership and shame-based leadership. These leaders basically do everything possible to:

Inability to manage personal relationships in the workplace. Whether it’s a friendship with a direct report or a romantic relationship in the workplace, some managers can struggle with separating those relationships from work and maintaining professionalism. In the worst cases, it can lead to charges of:

  • Favoritism
  • Discrimination
  • Retaliation against a subordinate (after a friendship or romantic relationship ends)

How failures in leadership happen

So, where did it all go wrong? What’s the root cause of your leadership problem?

Most likely, one of two things has happened.

A people problem: It’s possible that your business simply promoted the wrong person into the ranks of leadership.

  • This individual could be a tenured employee with superior technical skills, but that doesn’t make someone a strong leader. People leadership requires a whole different set of skills than what individual contributors need.
  • Employees may be promoted on the basis of sharing certain traits or interests with the person promoting them – that person sees themself in the other, and assumes that means they’ll also be a good leader. Possessing arbitrary qualities such as these does not equate with strong leadership.

An environment problem: Your business has not given the manager the resources and support they need to excel in their leadership role.

Either way, don’t let these issues fester and perpetuate.

No one wants to have difficult conversations in the workplace. It’s stressful and unpleasant to admit your own shortcomings in cultivating other leaders, and then have to talk with those ineffective leaders about leveling up or being demoted. But it’s necessary to hold leaders accountable if you want to mitigate further damage to the business.

Ensuring the success of leaders

What can you do to help managers who are struggling to improve – and avoid this scenario in the first place?

1. Emphasize the right qualities

Look for the qualities and characteristics that are more likely to indicate good leadership potential. Must-have leadership traits include:

  • High emotional intelligence (EQ) and empathy, indicating the ability to create a psychologically safe environment that inspires productivity and quality performance, and encourages team members to be their best selves
  • A desire to build effective relationships built on mutual trust and respect
  • An interest in coaching others and supporting them in reaching their goals
  • Flexibility and adaptability, because change is constant and inevitable
  • Conflict-resolution skills
  • Business acumen that helps them see the wider business strategy and how their team supports it, and results in good decision-making
  • Self-awareness, along with a demand for accountability from themselves and their team
  • Open-mindedness and an inquisitive nature, which can lead to a focus on continual learning and improvement for themselves and their team
  • Optimism and positivity

2. Debunk leadership myths

Employees under consideration for a leadership role may have misconceptions about what it’s like to be a leader and what type of person makes a good leader, which can impact how they approach their role. Before employees agree to take on a leadership role, you’ll need to carefully explain the role of a leader and why they’re suited for it.

3. Set clear expectations

In addition to explaining the general leadership role, describe what being a leader means at your organization in their specific role. This includes clearly defined expectations surrounding:

  • Their function and purpose on the team
  • Team communication
  • Interpersonal dynamics on the team
  • Performance goals
  • Workplace priorities
  • Self and team assessment and feedback
  • Leadership style

There should be no mystery about you expect them to conduct themselves as a leader.

4. Ease the transition

Provide a comprehensive leadership orientation and initial leadership development training.

If an employee is being promoted internally to a management role, invite the people who will be reporting to them to meet them beforehand. This could take the form of an information session, casual meeting or a mock interview. The point is to:

  • Introduce potential managers and subordinates
  • Allow them the opportunity to get to know each other and determine if this is a good fit
  • Enhance the comfort level of both parties with this change

5. Check in on your leaders regularly

None of us can stop learning or growing. Much like regular employees, leaders can’t become complacent or stagnant in their knowledge and skills. At least every few years, require your managers to take leadership “refresher” trainings. These courses can focus on specific skills that an individual leader needs to develop more, or they can address leadership skills gaps that you’ve identified across your organization.

And don’t forget to check in on your managers regularly. When we think about things like wellness, stress management, the need for recognition or fulfillment of goals, for example, many of us have a tendency to fixate on individual contributors. But managers are people who feel the weight of everyday life equally and share similar concerns, challenges and needs as all other employees. Checking in on managers is critical for keeping them engaged and motivated, and in turn able to be the best leader they can be for their team.

6. Reestablish trust with employees

If you have to demote or remove a leader, put special effort into rebuilding trust with the team members who remain to prevent turnover and loss of talent while mitigating any long-term damage to your company culture.

Summing it all up

Good leadership has a significant impact on the success of each team in your workplace, which makes it incredibly important for the overall success of your business. If you see indicators of leadership problems with any of your managers, intervene as soon as possible to avoid dips in productivity and performance, as well as the possibility of employees leaving your company. Decide whether the failure in leadership is because of an unsuccessful promotion or a lack of resources and support. You will need to either demote the manager or move them into a role that better suits their skills, or you must help the manager to level up their leadership capabilities. To avoid this scenario going forward, focus on the right leadership qualities in potential candidates, set expectations, enhance your leadership training and check in with managers regularly.

To learn more about effective leadership, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.