Be a better leader by avoiding these 3 bad habits

Leadership can be described as a role of chronic stress punctuated by periods of acute stress. This stress can play out in counterproductive behaviours that negatively impact the team and the business. Here are three bad habits to watch out for – and ways to reset your leadership style.

Leadership is a balancing act in everything, particularly when it comes to people. Paradoxes like being demanding yet empathetic, or honest yet tactful, are particularly tricky. There are no right answers and someone will invariably feel unhappy.

Yet one of the biggest causes of stress is avoiding those hard conversations. Whenever we have seen leaders take tough people calls, they invariably say, “I should have done that a lot sooner. It had to be done in a considerate way, but it needed to be done.”

I recently met a leader who had taken over a new global sales function, and his team’s performance appraisals showed there were people on his team who weren’t the right fit for their role. But the day he was to break this to them, the world went into lockdown. The leader decided that he didn’t want to let people go at a time when they perhaps needed their organizations the most.

So he sat down with them individually, gave them honest feedback, but also gave them ample time to find their new calling. Within a few months, the worst of the crisis had passed. Organisations were hiring again, and those people found new jobs. What’s more, they walked away as advocates of the leader and a well-wishing alumni of the organization.

This leader did three things I would describe as effective leadership habits, particularly in a crisis:

  • Zoom out – he thought longer-term, and considered the impact of his actions over a longer period of time.
  • Zoom in – he also looked within, and understood who he was and why he needed to behave a certain way.
  • Tell the story – he shaped his company’s culture by clearly communicating why this was the right decision.

These principles can help you stand by an unpopular decision or see things differently to solve a ‘wicked’ problem.

When operating under stressful conditions, be careful not to slip into three counterproductive habits.

1. “I know I’m right about this”, or high-performing arrogance

When high performing leaders are low on self-awareness and empathy, they create a toxic environment. Their talent has led to a role with greater responsibility, but they stop listening to everyone and surround themselves with ‘yes-people’. Arrogance inevitably leads to their downfall, and usually in spectacular ways.

If you have an inflated view of yourself that’s reinforced by people who don’t challenge you, you limit your team’s ability to learn and collaborate.

US hedge fund manager Ray Dalio learned this the hard way, after bankrupting himself and his clients. This experience led him to create the concept of ‘idea meritocracy’, reinforced by a mechanism of honest, brutal and continuous feedback. At every meeting, everyone shares 360-degree feedback, and it is recorded and can be viewed by anyone in the company. This culture of transparency, where the best ideas and perspectives will win, led his company to predict the Global Financial Crisis.

Consider the impact Satya Nadella made when he took over as CEO of Microsoft, and oversaw a fundamental shift in its culture from ‘know it all’ to ‘learn it all’. Instead of memorising performance data, executives were encouraged to talk about what they were doing differently. This growth mindset helped generate an extra US$250billion in market value within his first four years at the helm.[2]

Curiosity and active listening are key to being an inclusive leader – and one who can retain top talent. Consider how you show up at work. Do you think you’re the smartest person in the room? Or are you ready to listen and learn? Are you focused on projecting yourself, or your people? Have you built a team who revere you, rather than a team that will challenge you? A 360-degree review could hold up a mirror to your own behaviours.

2. “Let it pass”, or do-nothing complacency

One of the most insidious forms of poor leadership is the “do nothing” leader. You can’t really fault the leader for doing anything. It’s easy in hindsight to point out the errors that Nokia, Blockbuster, Kodak, and the like have made. But have you ever thought about what you would have done had you been in their place? Blockbuster laughed Netflix out of their boardroom twice, because every day that their CEO woke up at that time, three new Blockbuster stores had opened up overnight.

When business appears strong on the surface, it can be tempting to ignore the underlying issues. In all these cases, legacy system structures, accounting systems and product development conflicts slowed strategic decision-making. In this type of scenario, leaders may not see it as their problem, or they may prefer to avoid making hard decisions.

But the role of a leader is always to act. To try, and learn, and try again. To do this, make sure you have someone who will be honest and tell you if the road you are travelling leads to a dead end. And have the humility to listen, especially if it differs from your own beliefs. Every company and leader who fell felt that they did the right thing at that time.

3. “This won’t work here” or idea-stifling killjoys

Will you allow me to stay in your bedroom for a fee? Or drive me in your own car to where I want to go? These questions still sound absurd but are actual business models worth more than the entire hotel and taxi industries respectively. Great ideas always sound absurd until someone else does it. And here is where our third bad habit shows up – killing great ideas.

The energy and emotions you share as a leader are contagious – 59% of respondents in one study identified their leader as the person at work who most influenced their personal energy. Unfortunately, if you are stressed, you will never have the optimism and risk appetite to follow a good idea. You will foster incremental thinking in your team and nobody will want to bring the next disruptive idea to you. And this controlling approach can lead to infighting rather than innovation.

These counterproductive leader behaviours can even negatively impact the bottom line – including increased absenteeism or reduced productivity, issues with retention or employee mental wellbeing. A shift in mindset can help you turn that negative energy into something positive.

Look for red flags, such as people behaving differently around you. When people are complaining, it’s a positive thing – you can more easily identify what is wrong. But when people become quiet, you should be seriously concerned. It’s time to do what that global sales head did – Zoom Out, Zoom In and Find the right story to tell.

There is no doubt that leaders are under pressure and dealing with stress. But what you do with that stress matters. Instead of allowing it to trigger negative behaviours at work, find a way to let it fuel positive energy and action. It all starts with greater self-awareness, one of the most important attributes of leadership intelligence.