10 Bad Habits of Leaders and Managers in the Workplace

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 27th November 2017

In a UK working environment, where such a low proportion of leaders and managers are professionally trained and qualified (less than 20% according to CMI research*), it is highly likely that any bad habits exhibited by a senior manager are going to be emulated by others, who will then pass them on to the people who follow them, and so it will continue.

In this piece, I will highlight 10 of the habits that are very common across organisations and that can do some real damage.

bad habits of managers in the workplace

1. Using targets and objectives to motivate instead of leading, engaging and inspiring

It has become ‘normal’ for many organisations and their managers to use the routine setting and monitoring of short-term targets and objectives as their primary method of ‘motivating’ their people.

Two problems with this:

  1. It represents the use of Reward and Coercive power (see previous articles on French and Raven and their ‘5 sources of power’ if you don’t know what I mean) and we know that that has a very transitory motivational impact and connects with the ‘wrong’ part of the brain.
  2. It tends to become the entire focus of performance management, removing the need for the leader to properly engage the person with the vision and purpose of the organisation and to enthuse or inspire them to give their best. This capability to engage, enthuse and inspire is therefore not seen as important and not practiced or valued by many leaders.

2. Focusing on the short-term and operational rather than the vision

This has a connection with number 1, but is also borne out of a habit in the UK of driving everything in monthly, quarterly and annual cycles. Leaders are often judged against annual objectives and so focus their entire attention on meeting them. This typically extends to all levels of management. So, who’s looking at the horizon? Who has a grip on the vision and direction? Those things often become the subject of an occasional conversation or meeting but aren’t present in the day-to-day. Often, they therefore don’t inform the setting of those short-term goals either, leaving them to become vague notions or ‘blue-sky’, with no presence or focus for leaders and their teams. No surprise then if they’re not achieved. Focus on today’s operations and you’ll probably disempower your front-line managers and demotivate their teams. Just a thought.

3. Filling the diary with meetings

Many leaders seem to have an almost paranoid need to appear frantically busy. Maybe that comes from a kind of guilt or psychological need to justify the rank and salary; maybe a need to feel useful and important. Whatever the root cause, the impact is often that leaders – especially senior leaders – are absent from the activities of the organisation and from their own management colleagues much of the time. The time they should be spending walking the walk and spreading engagement and inspiration, connecting with their managers and reinforcing the vision for the workforce, is instead spent reviewing data or discussing issues far removed from the pressing need to enthuse and support their people.

4. Thinking that data and money are more important issues than people

Again, this follows on from the previous point. Now, I’ve been a senior leader, even a CEO, in organisations where there is so much going on and so many facets to the operation that a focus on data and financial performance seems wise. One problem: data and the monthly figures tend to focus on outcomes, whereas a leader’s job is to influence and shape the inputs. You can’t have an impact on the last quarter’s figures. You can – and must – have an enormous impact on the performance of the next year. If you can engage the people and inspire them with a compelling vision and a management team that obviously cares about them and the value that they can generate for all the stakeholders (not just the shareholders), then your impact will be massive and extend for years.

5. Avoiding the important conversations

Many leaders and managers find the concept of the ‘difficult conversation’ daunting and therefore something to be put-off or avoided altogether. Holding people to account for performance, challenging inappropriate behaviour or just raising issues that are likely to cause conflict can seem like a big deal or an emotional confrontation. There might be a problem with the title and the approach. Calling it a ‘difficult conversation’ isn’t helpful. It raises the emotional stakes, puts you on your guard and perhaps encourages you to be more heavy-handed than you might need to be. Such conversations don’t have to be ‘difficult’, but they are important. If you and the person you need to speak with are facing in the same direction and focused on complementary outcomes, then this is simply a conversation about important issues. If you’re not, you have a whole other set of issues to think about before you have the conversation and probably need to think about the other issues in this list first. It isn’t a contest and you don’t need to overpower the other person to ‘win’. This is just an opportunity to coach or mentor the other person. You need to think about the areas of common ground and work from there, not turn it into a painful argument. If this is an issue for you, read more about it, get some coaching or training. This matters. You need to influence performance positively and do the right thing for the team and the organisation. Don’t duck it.

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6. Sending an email when you needed a conversation

This is a tough one, because leaders are busy and often don’t get to ‘clear the decks’ until after everyone else has gone home, or when they get home themselves. It’s therefore tempting to dash off a quick email about something or to hit ‘reply’ to a message. It’s quick and easy and gets it over with so you can move on to the next one. But is it the right answer? Each issue you want or need to communicate about needs thought and the right choice of communication method. Some of them need a face-to-face conversation, some need a formal response, many need reflection and careful consideration. Don’t just hit ‘send’ or ‘reply’ to get it over with: think about it. Five seconds of thought can avoid misunderstanding, help to engage and show leadership. It’s worth it.

7. Seeking to control rather than empower

Many people who get promoted to a management role find it hard to let go of things they are used to doing. If they can manage to delegate those things, they often interfere with the work or behave in too controlling a manner. As a leader you take responsibility for the work and performance of your team, so it’s not surprising if some get a little paranoid and control-freak-like about it. However, just because that’s how it makes you feel, it doesn’t make it acceptable to behave that way. This isn’t about reassuring your worry or satisfying your need for control. You’re a leader. So, lead. That means you empower your people, coach them, mentor them, inspire them and engage them with the vision. It doesn’t mean that they are just drones or worker bees there to do your bidding. Over the many years I’ve been a mentor, many leaders have said to me, often with pride, that they are a control-freak. As if it’s some kind of ‘badge of honour’ or something admirable. It isn’t. Generally, it’s demotivating, demoralising, condescending, irritating and disengaging. It makes your best people lose interest and switch off, or leave. It makes the least effective ones perform to a bare minimum, knowing that you’ll spot any problems, so they don’t need to pay attention. It fills your head and time with anxiety and focus on the smallest details, when you should be thinking ahead, inspiring and motivating. Just stop it.

8. Managing when you should be leading

If you don’t see or understand the difference between being a manager and being a leader, then that might be a great place to start. While any leader needs to be a manager sometimes too, it’s also true that any manager needs to be a leader. This isn’t about job title or rank, it’s about your intent and the way you behave. As a director, CEO and Chairman I’ve often had to behave like a manager some of the time. I’ve needed to plan things, organise, coordinate and monitor things. But I’ve tried always to remember that I’m a leader first and a manager second. I need to set an example, raise the bar, fly the flag, talk the talk and walk the walk. If I let myself get bogged down in the everyday, who’s minding the store? Who else is going to scan the horizon for icebergs or remind people of the true purpose of our work? Who else is going to LEAD? It’s up to you. Don’t forget.

9. Bias and prejudice

Most leaders have grown up with certain attitudes and assumptions. They are shaped by the culture of their ‘tribe’. That tribe might be geographical, sectoral, family-related, ethnic, religious and even generational. That’s all fine; we are who we are. But as a leader and manager, you must be aware that your behaviour, attitudes, even language, sends out messages about what is acceptable or preferable. Any attitude, bias or prejudice you have will be laid bare and will have an impact on those around you. Think about it. What assumptions do you have within you? Do you think that only men can do certain types of work? Do you assume things about people from particular social backgrounds, ethnic groups, genders or religions? Do you favour people from certain groups or disciplines? If you aren’t familiar with it, the Johari Window can be interesting and insightful here. Make no mistake, bias and prejudice have no place in leadership – you represent truth, balance, positivity and the best interests of all your people.

10. Assuming you’re right because you’re the boss

Getting promoted can go to people’s heads. I’ve seen it. I’ve even felt it. It can be tempting to start to believe your own rhetoric and to think you have some almost divine right to be correct. The bad news is, you’re just as likely to be wrong as anyone else. It’s just that your mistakes might cause more damage. Humility is a challenge for leaders, especially senior leaders. People look to you for the answers and for certainty, so it’s easy to give in and provide it or to start to feel that you have God-like powers. Bad news is, you’re still the same person you were before you became a leader. In my case that means I’m still the same person who once replaced the plug on a 110-volt USA drill so that I could use it in the UK, and so blew it up and singed my hair. I’m the guy who, despite knowing that I have zero sense of direction, will often refuse to believe my Satnav and so get hopelessly lost. I’m still the guy who once bought a pair of boots where one was a size 9 and the other a 10 and didn’t notice until my girlfriend commented that I was ‘walking funny’. OK, I’ve done hundreds of really good and intelligent things too and had a successful career – but I know I’m not infallible and I try to remember that I might be wrong or that someone else might have a better idea. Don’t kid yourself.

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