Step up your leadership by avoiding these unhelpful traits

Outstanding leadership is something that almost every career-oriented professional aspires to—and it's something that every organization needs to be successful. 

There's ample research powering our understanding of what makes a leader great, from being empathetic and resilient to communicating effectively in all situations. Still, knowing which qualities or behaviors to avoid is just as crucial. 

Let’s examine these so you can learn how to avoid common pitfalls or support others who need to grow in their leadership role.

What is poor leadership?

A leader must improve when their actions (or lack of) impede their ability to guide and manage their team effectively. While shortcomings like lateness or disorganization can detract from a leader's performance, they aren't necessarily disqualifiers. 

However, certain qualities fundamentally clash with effective leadership, such as micromanaging, giving employees preferential treatment, putting ego first, and not communicating openly.

Strong leaders empower their teams with essential support, guidance, and resources, fostering an environment where everyone can thrive. 

In contrast, poor leadership consistently fails to provide such support. This litmus test defines poor leadership by its impact on the team.

Recognizing weaknesses or signs of poor leadership isn't an indictment or a personal flaw. It's a proactive step toward identifying areas for improvement, acquiring more resources, or adopting new practices.

3 signs of teams under poor leadership

Examining a team's traits can provide valuable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of their leader, as some characteristics may shaped by or similar to those of their leader.

Three warning signs that a team may be operating under poor leadership include:

1. Learned helplessness

When employees frequently get stuck, don’t know what to do, or hesitate to perform work that varies even slightly from the routine, they may lack strong leadership.  Learned helplessness can manifest in response to poor training, frequent berating, or being micromanaged.

Worse still, employees may start internalizing the belief that asking questions leads to more stress or criticism. This form of helplessness can be difficult to unlearn and may take a great deal of time and trust-building under a new leader before people can work more autonomously.

2. Indifference

When a team is not passionate or enthusiastic about their work, it’s often a reflection of poor leadership. While there will always be some tasks that are less exciting than others, widespread indifference among team members can indicate a more significant issue.

For example, if the leader has a negative attitude or is overly focused on their ego, this can quickly spread throughout the team and dampen enthusiasm. It's also essential for leaders to recognize and appreciate the efforts and achievements of their team members, as a lack of recognition and incentives can lead to reduced motivation and engagement.

When team members feel their hard work is not acknowledged or rewarded, it can decrease their job satisfaction and overall productivity.

3. Heavy or unbalanced workloads

Although data analytics can’t definitively identify good or bad leaders, such tools increasingly provide valuable insights. For instance, if customer relationship management (CRM) systems or project management tools reveal imbalanced workloads across a team, it may indicate poor leadership.

The data may suggest that some employees are overworked while others have too light a load. Similarly, some employees might receive choice assignments that grow their careers, while others get assigned mainly tedious tasks. Such a scenario indicates favoritism and inconsistency. At the very least, it suggests that the manager assigning the workloads is unaware of the imbalance and its potential impact on morale and productivity.

10 poor leadership qualities to avoid

Staying vigilant and watching for these poor leadership qualities is especially important if you're growing your career or striving to become a better leader:

1. Micromanagement

Micromanagement is a style where a manager closely inspects and corrects their employees' work and strictly monitors their actions. It is a common trap for managers to fall into, as it can produce short-term positive results, especially when employees are new or need to learn a new skill.

However, micromanaging can get oppressive and undermine employee confidence. Micromanagement may stem from a manager feeling that errors or poor work output reflect negatively on them and points to a need for control. Some examples of micromanagement include asking to be copied on every communication or requiring remote staff to install mouse movement trackers on their websites. 

It's important to consider that managers may fall behind in their responsibilities when they are busy micromanaging.

2. Inconsistent management

Responding to recurring questions or challenges with reasonable consistency cultivates a sense of reliability and dependability and can reduce the risk of unintentional favoritism. In contrast, inconsistent behavior erodes trust or can be misinterpreted as giving some team members preferential treatment. 

Additionally, big fluctuations in your approach or response may cause employees to speculate about the company's stability or their standing within the team. Moreover, employees who need your clarification or help may delay asking until you're "in a better mood." This can result in resorting to guesswork, delaying tasks, or inadvertently causing more extensive issues. 

So, maintaining a consistent, approachable demeanor is essential for fostering a positive environment and workflow.

3. Bias and unfair treatment toward different individuals

Good leaders strive to treat all employees equitably, understanding the importance of providing support, respect, and opportunities to every team member. Poor leaders play favorites (whether they know it or not). Instead, aim to respond similarly to all employees when they ask for support, request time off, or have a conflict with another employee. 

Unfair treatment can quickly impact team dynamics, making coworkers dislike each other or disengage from true collaboration. It can also be a significant liability if you're unconsciously (or consciously) discriminating against someone. Seek feedback from your team and other leaders to ensure consistency—and never ignore the feedback, even if it’s unpleasant.

4. Resistance to change

Great leaders embrace change, especially if it's a company mandate or a change proven to bring about better outcomes. That's part of the job—leaders set the tone for upcoming changes and trends, paving the way for their employees. Conversely, poor leaders resist change and cling to a well-known status quo.

An open mindset means something other than jumping on every trend or tackling many short-term initiatives. It’s about actively identifying changing trends in the workplace, authentically adopting new practices set in place by C-suite leaders, and staying informed about new tools, technologies, and work processes to help your team adapt.

Some examples of current workplace struggles that poor leaders fail to adapt to include: 

  • remote or hybrid work preferences,
  • the role of AI and automated technology, 
  • and employees' growing focus on work-life balance.

You might feel yourself resisting change because it's a lot of upfront work, it brings you into an unfamiliar space you have yet to train for, or you don't value the forces or opinions driving the change. 

While navigating these new challenges may seem daunting, leaders who approach change with an open mind, a willingness to learn, and a commitment to supporting their team's needs will find themselves equipped to thrive in the evolving workplace.

5. Low empathy or inability to display empathy

While genuine empathy is ideal, consistently demonstrating empathetic behavior is essential, even if you don't naturally feel it.

Empathy allows you to understand your team's perspectives, challenges, and concerns, viewing conflicts as more than inconveniences.

At one point, you may have been taught that competent leaders are tough, confident, and stubborn. However, when leaders lack empathy, employees may feel ignored and devalued.

A lack of empathy might present as:

  • overriding employee arguments and demanding work get done a certain way or at a particular time
  • ignoring personal conflicts
  • never responding to emails or DMs that employees send you in a timely fashion
  • focusing solely on work while dismissing emotional well-being and personal challenges
  • working on or thinking about other tasks when someone is speaking with you instead of actively listening

It’s crucial to listen, find meaningful resolutions to problems, and ensure people feel comfortable approaching you with questions and concerns.

6. Poor communication

Leaders often need better communication styles. Poor communication can show up in many ways, such as:

  • inability to provide clear and concise instructions to employees during tasks or training exercises
  • lack of active listening skills, making employees feel unheard or undervalued
  • failing to ensure all team members have equal access to critical information and updates

When leaders struggle with communication, it can lead to significant drawbacks, such as:

Undervaluing talent: employees may feel undervalued if they receive minimal positive feedback or only encounter criticism.

Uncertainty: lack of feedback leaves employees uncertain about their performance and areas for improvement while also making them feel that their opinions, ideas, and questions aren't valued, ultimately leading to disengagement.

Confusion: inconsistent information sharing can confuse people and hinder productivity.

Dividing remote and in-office employees: poor communication can exacerbate the division between remote and in-office employees, as remote workers may feel isolated and disconnected from their in-person counterparts, increasing rifts within the team.

Difficulty providing support: leaders may be unaware of employees' workloads, capacities, and stressors, making it challenging to offer appropriate support.

7. Negative mindset

Negative mindsets shape how leaders interact with their employees and discuss work objectives, projects, and initiatives. Even if you don't have a particularly negative opinion on a subject, a negative mindset can make employees think you view a particular person, project, or task negatively, which may shape their behavior.

If you demonstrate a negative mindset, employees may hesitate to approach you or ask for help, as that mindset can make you seem like you're not receptive to their input. On a more holistic level, having a negative mindset also means you'll be disposed to seeing the worst in a situation. For instance, criticizing people's work instead of seeing the positives, or constantly complaining, and souring an otherwise positive atmosphere in the workplace.

8. Displays of egotistical behavior

Ego-driven behavior means prioritizing your interests above those of the team. For example, this can include taking credit for work you didn't do (or over-emphasizing your contributions), taking on projects or tasks that are good for your visibility and career (even when the project should belong to someone else), and making decisions based on your personal preferences.

Egotistical behavior can also turn into abusing your power. At its mildest, having too big an ego annoys the rest of your team. But as the problem grows, your team may feel alienated, taken advantage of, and demoralized. Egocentric behavior is also bad for your career—your team will remember how you made them feel, and other leaders can spot the signs of an egotistical leader.

9. Indecision

Overcoming indecisiveness can be challenging, as there may be legitimate reasons for delaying a decision, such as lacking crucial information or suddenly being confronted with a lot of information. However, being able to review your options and make a well-reasoned, informed decision is a hallmark of good leadership. 

Some leaders may hesitate to make decisions because they fear being held accountable. While it's understandable to want to avoid blame, accepting responsibility for decisions is a crucial part of being a leader. Shying away from this responsibility is a clear sign of ineffective leadership. 

Indecision can also manifest as delaying decisions, being easily swayed by new opinions, or refusing to commit to a course of action, leading to confusion, frustration, and a lack of progress within the team.

By gathering relevant information, weighing the options, and making well-reasoned choices, leaders can guide their teams toward success while maintaining their team's trust and confidence in their abilities.

10. Lack of transparency

Transparency is an excellent quality for a leader to possess. When everyone is aware of your schedule, thought process, and workflow, it helps align tasks and responsibilities, leading to smoother day-to-day operations. However, when your team lacks insight into your processes and expectations, it can hinder progress and negatively impact you and your team.

Similarly, colleagues may not be aware of the purpose and objectives of your meetings, making it hard for them to contribute effectively. Moreover, if your team is unaware of their performance criteria, it can cause confusion and a lack of direction.

Leaders must prioritize clear communication, well-defined expectations, and organized workflows to foster a transparent and efficient work environment. Doing so will empower your team to perform more effectively, collaboratively, and with a shared purpose.

The impact of poor leadership qualities

Consider these impacts of poor leadership on teams, the entire organization, and your own life:

Team impact

"People don't quit bad jobs—they quit bad bosses." 

It's an old saying, but it's largely accurate. According to Development Dimensions International (DDI) research, 57% of surveyed professionals have quit their jobs to avoid a bad boss, and 37% consider it. 

Poor leadership at the team or department level can have significant adverse effects, including:

  • poor understanding of work tasks and responsibilities
  • increased workplace stress and burnout
  • high employee dissatisfaction and lack of any sense of job fulfillment
  • a workplace culture full of negativity and helplessness
  • high employee turnover and an unwillingness for coworkers to help each other or collaborate
  • an environment of negativity and a pervasive sense of dread

Organizational impact

Organizations also suffer when there are poor leaders, no matter their leadership level. Team leads, and leaders of relatively small departments can significantly harm the entire organization by causing excessive turnover and lower productivity while new employees are found and onboarded. A lack of cross-functional ability can also occur when team members aren’t interacting effectively. 

As poor leaders move higher in the company, they can cause even more serious harm, such as failure to meet quotas and deadlines, a toxic work environment that becomes too entrenched in negativity, and a lack of confidence in the company. 

Stakeholders within and outside the organization can feel actively disengaged during periods of poor leadership, leading to unmet goals and missed opportunities.

Individual impact

Poor leadership hurts the team and has severe consequences for the leaders themselves. The most apparent impacts include stunted career growth, potential job loss, and reduced compensation. They might be just as frustrated as their employees because their leadership style is lacking. This realization can increase stress, a growing sense of failure, loneliness and isolation, and burnout.

Most leaders want to excel in their roles. However, obstacles such as not being willing to put in the work, being uncomfortable receiving constructive criticism, having limited insight into what constitutes good vs. bad leadership, and lacking a clear path to improvement can all get in the way of transforming into a more adept leader.  

How to avoid poor leadership qualities in your organization

Immediately making changes for yourself or your wider organization is the best way to course-correct. 

For example:

  • hire from within, after extensive vetting
  • prioritize soft skills and leadership training programs
  • continually coach and evaluate leaders
  • create and maintain a positive company culture
  • give all employees feedback channels
  • standardize leader responsibilities and provide specific guidance on people management
  • focus on leadership training for the unique challenges of hybrid and remote work setups 
  • create clear protocols for re-training (or dismissing) bad leaders
  • learn from mistakes, ask for feedback from all levels of the organization
  • rebuild trust after poor leadership by acknowledging past mistakes, fostering open communication and transparency, and leading by example

Give leaders the tools they need to become great 

Becoming a great leader requires hard work. It involves learning new leadership skills and sometimes unlearning poor habits. Continuously evaluating your performance to see where you can improve is a crucial, ongoing practice. You can start eliminating bad practices by learning about the signs of poor leadership and, more importantly, practicing emotional intelligence to avoid these pitfalls.

Start today by reflecting on your leadership style and seeing which unhelpful characteristics might be present. This self-awareness will be a foundation for your leadership growth and development. Then, you can actively practice tactics to replace them with better communication, leadership, and work styles. Start inspiring your team with the Storyteller Tactics Deck, or strengthen your team dynamics with the Team Tactics Deck.

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