Leadership behaviour is one of the most important factors influencing the culture of our organisations.
Sure, one bad team member can create an unpleasant working environment for some. However, poor leadership behaviour can have negative influences spreading its tendrils far and wide throughout our workplaces.
Negative Leadership Behaviour Is Contagious
Leaders are in a position of influence and power. Whether you’re leading a small team or an entire company, you have the ability to influence the people who report to you in both positive and negative ways.
Poor leadership behaviour is contagious and can shape the culture of your team and organisation. Much like a virus spreading, negative leadership behaviour can travel throughout an entire team.
Over time, people who are infected will start to model the poor attitudes and behaviours that infected them in the first place. Of course, the opposite is also true.
A manager who leads his or her team positively and collaboratively is likely to instil those behaviours in their team members, too.
Why Focus On Negative Leadership Behaviour?
Some of you are probably reading this and thinking “But I’m not a tyrant leader and I want the best for my team”.
I get that. In general, I would say that very few people reading Thoughtful Leader articles fall into the terrible leader category.
However, sometimes I like to write these articles as a warning and an opportunity to check our leadership behaviour, and I include myself in this.
If you are a well-meaning and supportive leader then you probably aren’t in danger of creating a terribly toxic team culture. However, busy leaders who are under pressure can start acting in ways that create poor team environments, so it’s always worth being aware of some of the bad examples out there.
Plus, we can always learn, improve and tweak our methods and hopefully this article helps you to do this.
Examples of Negative Leadership Behaviour
Team members are all individuals. Leaders don’t have any special superpowers that force people to act in ways they don’t want to.
However over time, we start to see the actions of leadership shape the behaviour of our teams in different ways. Here are some of the most common examples of leadership behaviour I’ve seen that create a negative culture within a team.
Openly Criticising Team Members
Leaders who criticise team members openly in front of others or punish them for making their own decisions create a culture of fear in the team.
When a team member doesn’t agree with their manager and chooses to go their own way, they’re in for conflict and criticism. Perhaps they are taking a different approach to their work, or collaborating with people who their manager doesn’t want them to.
This results in a situation where the team member has a choice. They can confront and argue their decision with the manager directly, hide what they are doing or avoid the problem by just taking the manager’s preferred approach.
Let’s see an example of how this might happen:
A team member is working on a project and would like to test out their ideas with another team in your organisation.
Their manager discourages them, saying that the other team shouldn’t get to influence the outcome of the project.
The team member knows that collaborating now would most probably get a better result in the long run. However, the team member also knows that their boss will be mad if they find out that the work was shared with the other team.
Avoiding conflict and criticism is often the path of least resistance in these situations. Rather than having to hide what they are doing, team members will simply take actions that they know their manager will agree with.
Fear is a powerful emotion. This fear of criticism or punishment can create a team who simply echo the thoughts and actions of their manager, reducing the diversity of opinions in the workplace.
Failing to Involve the Team
Leaders who fail to involve their teams in decision making can create a situation where theirs becomes the only opinion that matters.
Diversity of opinion is important. Often the best results are achieved when team members and their manager work together to create solutions to solve team problems.
Over time if team members aren’t consulted or if their opinions are ignored, everyone becomes accustomed to this behaviour.
Instead of trying to provide input, the team will eventually simply wait for the direction to be passed down, and then follow it without question.
Instead of necessarily being fearful of their manager, the team simply knows that their input is ignored, so they stop trying.
Demanding Complete Oversight
Some leaders struggle to trust and provide autonomy to their teams. They want to check all the work that is completed and give specific direction about how everything should be done. Often this is due to insecurity, fear of failure or the need for power and control.
When managers start to oversee every action and overrule the decisions of their team members, the team becomes powerless to work in the way that suits them best. This lack of autonomy reduces motivation and creates a team culture where the manager becomes the single point of contact for everything in the team.
Team members know that they will be overruled when it comes to making decisions about their work, so they test everything with the manager first.
Over time, team members learn to check in with their manager at every turn. The manager now has complete control over what happens in the team.
Making Negative Comments About Others
When leaders start to judge or criticise others in front of their team, this attitude can spread.
Even though we’re all free thinkers and can make up our own mind, it can be very awkward when your manager has a problem with a person or team in your workplace, who you actually think is doing a pretty good job!
Negative judgements about the performance of others can start to influence the attitudes and the behaviour inside a team. When we know that our boss is not on good terms with another manager, we may avoid engaging that person because we know it will result in conflict.
After all, going with the flow is often easier, and if we can avoid conflict we often take that path.
What a Poor Team Culture Looks Like (and How You Can Avoid It In Your Team)
The impact of negative leadership behaviour can be significant in shaping the attitudes of team members and how they behave.
Here we take a look at some of the key characteristics that I see in teams that are shaped by negative leadership behaviour. But fear not, I’ll also look at some simple ways to reverse the trend and avoid creating these conditions in your team!
Mental Fatigue & Stress
Disagreeing with your boss is tiring, especially if it leads to arguments or situations where you are told that it’s “my way or the highway”.
Over time, team members may find that agreeing with their manager is much less stressful, even if they don’t believe in it.
Unfortunately this means that team members are going to have to become great actors, pretending they are on board even when they’re not.
This is known as cognitive dissonance, where your beliefs don’t align with the actions you take. You force yourself to behave a certain way (because it’s easier), but you don’t really believe in what you’re doing.
Feelings of cognitive dissonance are stressful. There is a constant tension between your beliefs and your actions.
The result in many cases is that people attempt to change their attitude to avoid this feeling. Instead of continuing to doubt the direction of their manager, they instead stop asking questions and simply agree.
After a while, what you have is a team that never questions or challenges the direction of the leadership.
The Rise of “Yes-Women” and “Yes-Men”
Prolonged poor leadership behaviour can create “groupthink” and a lack of diversity of thought within a team. Over time, team members who stay may start to simply agree and fail to question decisions or provide input to help shape the team.
In the worst cases, team members can turn into a small gang, doing the bidding of a tyrant leader. Fear drives most of their behaviour and they start to perpetuate the poor attitude and behaviour of their manager.
Even if they wouldn’t act that way normally, team members start to avoid conflict, stop providing input and just go with the flow. They know they’ll be punished by their boss if they don’t comply, so they start to push the same attitudes out through the workplace.
It’s not uncommon to see conflict with other teams as these team members follow the approach set by their leadership. Unfortunately, some team members will also start to believe that to get results, you need to engage in poor leadership behaviours.
The Blame Game
As team members become more fearful of their manager, this starts to drive a culture of blame. Nobody wants to be the one to come under fire, so they start to point fingers elsewhere.
When this starts to happen within a team, it can be torn apart by infighting. However, it also creates tension with other teams, too. Often it’s easier to blame someone who doesn’t work right next to you, because they don’t have the chance to defend themselves as easily.
Controlling leaders sometimes don’t mind infighting and blaming within the team. The blame game between team members takes the focus off their leadership and means they are less likely to be the target of criticism themselves.
Unmotivated Team Members
Fear is a powerful motivator, but not a positive one. Fear will drive you to avoid pain, rather than to achieve pleasure or success. I’ve heard this described as “away-from” motivation.
As such, team members often become burnt out and unmotivated under poor leadership. They don’t experience encouragement or positive feedback and are unable to contribute their ideas to the team.
Faced with little to no autonomy, they check in with their boss at every turn, testing their thinking to make sure they won’t get in trouble. Proactivity suffers and team members fail to grow because they are limited by the controlling behaviour of their manager.
Leadership Behaviour to Create a Positive Team Culture
Unsurprisingly, many of the leadership behaviours to create a positive team culture are the opposite of those listed above.
The amazing rock formations we often see on our coastlines are not formed overnight. They happen because of consistent, persistent action over time. We build a positive team culture in a similar way, through consistent repetition.
Positive Leadership Behaviour 1: Coach, Instead of Punish Your Team
It’s easy to feel like reprimanding your team members when they make a mistake, particularly if you’re working in a high-stress environment. However, coaching your team members helps them to contribute to their own development, instead of just taking orders about what they should do.
Coaching is not about telling your team members how they should do things. It’s about understanding the reasons behind their actions and then helping them work through what could have been better and developing actions to improve.
When coaching, I like to use the simple “C-O-A-C-H” method:
- C: Understand the Critical Issue
- O: Find the Opportunity. In other words, what is the ideal future state the team member would like to have achieved?
- A: Develop some Actions which will help them get closer to their ideal situation
- C: Determine the Commitment of the team member. Do they really are about achieving the actions to improve? What could be done to increase their commitment?
- H: Hold Accountable – agree how you will monitor progress on the actions and keep your team member “honest”.
Coaching is an ongoing conversation which involves providing feedback, but also requires the team member to think for themselves. Using this method, they are more likely to learn and grow than by being told what to do.
Positive Leadership Behaviour 2: Ask For Input and Feedback… Then Use It
Some leaders resist asking for input from their teams, because they feel like they should know it all. They might feel as if they should make every decision because they are “the boss”.
However, even if you think you know the answer, consulting with your team is important. Firstly, it gives you a more diverse set of ideas and approaches than just your own.
Second, you are more likely to increase commitment within your team when team members are able to provide input into how the team functions, or in the direction you are heading.
Involving your team in decisions, strategy and improvement conversations can create great solutions and bring up ideas you never would have thought of. An important step is to actually use the feedback you get from your team where you can, and give credit for it when you do.
Otherwise, you run the risk of “fake collaboration” where you ask for input, but go your own way anyway.
Positive Leadership Behaviour 3: Let Go
Perhaps the most critical (and difficult) step to take is to let go of your fears and insecurities, and let your team members do their thing.
This might mean that your team members fail from time to time. If they do, you can do some coaching to work through what could have been better.
It’s tempting to stop your team members from failing by stepping in and saving the day. However, your team members are likely to learn less this way, and to feel like they aren’t really accountable.
In addition, your team members will feel less autonomy and feel like they don’t have a say in the way they do their work. So while there is some risk in “letting go”, the rewards of developing and engaging your team members are significant.
Some Ideas to Help You Let Go
Letting go doesn’t mean you aren’t paying attention. You can try the following to create an environment where you still have oversight, without being a control freak:
- Book regular check-ins to monitor progress, without hovering over your team member every five minutes
- Make yourself available to provide advice and guidance. If you’re busy, book in some times where you will be contactable, and stick to them; and
- Resist the temptation to tell team members how to do everything. Part of their growth is to work out the right answers for themselves. If you jump in and save the day, they’ll feel less accountable and won’t feel in control of their destiny.
Ok, there is a lot to absorb in this post, but I hope you found it valuable. Poor leadership behaviour is a major factor driving toxic team cultures, and we want to avoid them wherever we can!
See if you can use some of the ideas in this post to create a positive team culture and engage your team.
Let me know what you think about this post in the Thoughtful Leader forum, or below in the comments!
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