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Bad leadership is driving away your best talent. How to fix it

a man with eyeglasses showing bad leadership by scolding a team member

Bad leadership plagues organizations at every level, harming team morale and increasing employee turnover. So how can you identify bad leadership? And more importantly, what can you do about it?

Below, we’ll go over characteristics to watch out for and what you can do to develop better bosses.

Table of contents
What is bad leadership?
The cost of bad leadership
What are some bad leadership qualities?
How do you identify a bad leader?
Why servant leadership is a bad idea
How to improve a bad leadership team
It’s time to banish bad leadership

What is bad leadership?

Bad leadership is any behavior that hurts morale, decreases motivation, harms performance or makes an employee unhappy at their job. Bad leadership can be detrimental on the individual level as well as organization-wide, leading to employee burnout and a toxic work culture.

The cost of bad leadership

More than just a nuisance, bad leadership is incredibly costly to organizations. Here are just a few statistics to illustrate the point:

  • 57% of employees have quit because of their boss. [1]
  • 68% of employees say being micromanaged hurt their morale. [2]
  • 55% of employees say being micromanaged decreased their productivity. [2]
  • Leadership plays a significant role in employee engagement. [3] In fact, Gallup estimates that "managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores across business units.” 
  • 84% of U.S. workers say that bad managers cause unnecessary stress. [4]

What are some bad leadership qualities?

If you want to identify bad leadership, keep an eye out for these behaviors.

Disrespectful attitude

According to a 2020 ResumeLab survey, a disrespectful attitude is the most common bad boss behavior: 72% of respondents reported that "my boss treated me in a rude or disrespectful manner at work."

A leader who doesn’t respect others might frequently talk over their subordinates, act dismissive of people in lower positions, raise their voice at their direct reports or berate people in front of their team.

Lack of integrity

Lack of integrity tops the list of bad leadership qualities because integrity is the foundation of good leadership. We’ve all heard stories of CEOs who padded their pockets while their workers suffered or who fudged the numbers to make it seem like their company was doing better than it actually was.

Integrity is crucial because, without it, employees will never trust their leader.

Arrogance

Arrogance in a leader shows up as being unwilling to listen to others’ opinions on decisions, bristling at critical feedback and a general belief that their way is the best way. The ResumeLab survey found that 69% of respondents have had a boss who was “always right.” 

Arrogance breaks down trust within the team because it shows that the leader doesn’t value team input.

Lack of assertiveness

A lack of assertiveness is one of the more prevalent bad leadership examples. Good leadership requires being able to step up when no one else will, take action during times of crisis and offer solutions to problems—all of which require assertiveness. A manager who is too passive might not be able to motivate their team or might let things fall apart when pressure is high.

Poor communication

Employees desire good communication with their bosses. Without good communication, direct reports don’t know what’s expected of them, making their jobs that much harder. 

Unfortunately, in a 2016 Interact survey of more than 1,000 U.S. workers, 69% of managers reported being uncomfortable communicating with employees.

Too much ego

Another one of the common bad leadership qualities, being egotistical is a big no-no for any effective leader. A manager with too much ego will be unable to admit when they’re wrong and unwilling to listen to differing opinions—both of which are crucial to creating an environment of trust and inclusivity.

Micromanaging

Micromanagement is fatal to trust because by keeping their nose in everything their direct reports are doing, a manager is essentially saying, “I don’t trust you to do your job.” It’s often driven by a leader’s power hunger and need to feel in control. This has devastating impacts on retention. 

In a 2015 WorkplaceTrends.com survey, 20% of respondents said they'd leave their job if their boss were a micromanager. In a 2014 Accountemps survey, 68% of respondents said being micromanaged hurt their morale, and 55% said it decreased their productivity.

A good leader will have full faith in their team and will trust them to do the job they were hired to do, empowering their direct reports to perform to the best of their ability.

Failure to show appreciation

A boss who fails to show appreciation contributes to an already growing number of disillusioned employees who feel unappreciated and undervalued. This contributes to a high turnover rate as well.

Showing appreciation can be something as simple as the boss saying, “Thanks for your help” or “Good job on that report.” Managers who never say thank you display poor leadership.

Lack of emotional intelligence

Don’t undervalue this soft skill. Emotional intelligence is crucial to leadership because it governs the intricate dynamics of a team. EI is a skill where you take notice of the emotions in yourself and in others and take action to properly manage them. 

According to Brandon Hall Group 2020 research, organizations that invest in developing emotional intelligence in leaders are 3.3X more likely to see a boost in talent retention.

A lack of emotional intelligence is a quality of bad leadership because it can cause behaviors such as dismissing others’ valid concerns, outbursts of anger and not being able to read the room.

Blaming others

While it’s important to hold others accountable when they’ve done wrong, blaming others is a sign of bad leadership. This is especially true when the leader does it to cover up their own mistakes.

In times of crisis, it’s not appropriate to look for someone to blame when you have a team to lead. A good leader will set aside intense emotions and ego and do what needs to be done to protect their team and solve the problem. 

Taking credit from others

On the flip side, a bad leader may take credit for their direct reports’ work. This shows a lack of humility and is another factor that leads to team members feeling unappreciated. A 2019 Bamboo HR survey of more than 1,000 U.S. employees found that taking credit from others is the worst behavior that a boss can display.

Good leadership means acknowledging and praising employees for a job well done. Strong leaders will highlight the accomplishments of their team, not steal credit for something they didn’t accomplish themselves.

Lack of self-awareness

Self-awareness is a crucial piece of emotional intelligence. Those in charge of others must have the ability to identify their strengths and blind spots, working to amplify the former and strengthen the latter. They also need to be cognizant of how their actions affect others, especially since leaders set the tone for their team and organization.

Bad work-life balance

While it may seem like a selfless act for a boss to work long hours and make their job the center of their world—it’s actually bad leadership. A poor work-life balance can eventually lead to burnout. And because bosses set an example for their direct reports, they can inadvertently create a toxic work culture, where their team believes they too must prioritize work over their personal life and health.

Low ambition

At the end of the day, a leader is ultimately responsible for helping their team reach objectives. Our own 20-year study of entrepreneurs uncovered that great leaders are highly motivated toward achievement.

Without ambition, a manager will display bad leadership by not being able to motivate their team toward the targets they’ve set.

Caring more about numbers than people

Sure, leaders need to care about metrics and goals in order to be effective in their role, but caring more about the bottom line than the people they serve is a huge red flag and an example of bad leadership. You can always sniff out this bad boss behavior anytime an employee faces a personal emergency. Does the boss show empathy? Or are they more concerned about when their employee can get back to work?

Conflict avoidance

Leaders are called upon to resolve conflicts all the time—whether that’s between team members or external parties. A leader who avoids conflict will let problems fester rather than facing them head-on, a sure sign of bad leadership.

How do you identify a bad leader?

You can identify a bad leader from some of the bad leadership qualities described above, but perhaps you’re not always in direct contact with the leader and can’t see these behaviors. In that case, some indirect ways to identify a bad leader include:

  • Low employee morale
  • Low employee engagement
  • Poor performance
  • High turnover
  • High absenteeism
  • Frequent complaints

Each of the problems listed above is complex and may not be due to bad leadership, or there might be more to the story than poor management. Keep an eye on these metrics and then do some investigating to get to the root cause.

Why servant leadership is a bad idea

The allure of the increasingly popular servant leadership is that it promotes selflessness and humility, encouraging the leader to put others first.

However, there can be downsides, especially when it’s taken to the extreme. The disadvantages of servant leadership include:

  • Subordinates may get complacent. Because servant leaders offer extra support to their direct reports and place others before themselves, it can be easy for employees to get complacent. Since they know their boss will likely swoop in to help them, they might not put in as much effort to solve problems on their own.
  • The leader may show a lack of assertiveness. A problem arises when the servant leader becomes subservient, giving in to others without questioning whether it’s aligned to team values or goals. As stated above, a good leader must be assertive in order to inspire their team.
  • The leader may burn out. Lastly, because the servant leader works selflessly, they may neglect taking care of their own health. Long hours and overworking can lead to burnout, especially if the servant leader has no one to check in on them.

How to improve a bad leadership team

Okay, so let’s say you’ve read these bad leadership qualities and recognized them among the leadership team of your organization. All hope is not lost! Before you can begin to improve a bad leadership team, first take time to assess what’s really going on.

Assess

Anonymous surveys

Put together employee feedback surveys, and be sure to make responses anonymous so your workforce feels free to speak openly about what they think about leadership. 

Performance data

Gather performance data, any information you have about important metrics. For example, you could look at the closing rate for your sales team or the speed of case resolution for your customer support team. 

One-on-ones with leaders and their direct reports

Lastly, consider one-on-one meetings with leaders and their direct reports to gain more context around the data you’ve gathered.

Address

Using the data you gathered in the steps above, you have a few options when it comes to addressing the problem of a bad leadership team.

Changing or redefining roles

In the course of your research, you may find that your managers are not bad leaders at all but just aren’t in the roles that play to their strengths. To rectify this, consider moving poor performers to a different role or redefining the one they’re currently in.

Coaching

For the managers who still struggle with bad leadership habits, one of the best things you can do is hire a leadership coach to work with them on strengthening their skills. 

Mentoring

Everyone can benefit from a mentor, even leaders! Consider assigning a more senior manager to mentor junior managers who are struggling with poor leadership skills. 

Leadership development programs

Many organizations create leadership development programs to help form better leaders. These programs involve anything from regular workshops, guest speakers, mentorship, coaching and rotational schedules that allow leaders to understand different departments.

It’s time to banish bad leadership

Bad leadership is never good for a company. It can destroy team performance and pressure the best talent to leave your organization. 

Thankfully, there’s a lot you can do to ameliorate poor leadership. If you’re having trouble developing good managers, it’s time to bring in outside help. A leadership coach can be an objective observer who can identify the root of your problem and work with your managers to address it

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