4 Leadership Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" by Marshall Goldsmith. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you in a position of leadership at work? What leadership mistakes should you avoid making at all costs?

There are four leadership mistakes that you may be making without even realizing it: withholding information, taking undeserved credit, practicing favoritism, and obsessing over goals. These bad habits may even be holding you back from receiving a promotion.

Learn more about the four leadership mistakes and how you can work to fix your bad habits.

Mistake #1: Withholding Information From Your Colleagues

Withholding information from your colleagues can take various forms. For example, you might exclude them from information-sharing meetings, not copy them on important emails, or fail to update them on changes in policy. 

You might think that people withhold information from their peers deliberately and maliciously. They know that not having access to certain information—for example, data about the most promising client leads, or information about which markets are most open to prospecting at the moment—will put their peers in a weaker position than themselves. 

However, Goldsmith argues that such maliciousness is rare. In reality, most people withhold information accidentally. They’re simply too busy or too forgetful to pass it on. For instance, a busy executive simply may not find the time to share the latest company updates with their assistant. Someone with many tasks to juggle may not have the focus to remember to reply to an email request for information.

Even accidental failures to share information have tangible negative effects. If someone finds out you didn’t tell them something important, they’ll trust you less. They’ll start to wonder what else you’re hiding from them. To successfully progress in the workplace, you need people to be loyal to you, not distrust or be suspicious of you.

The Healthier Behavior: Take a set amount of time each day to share information with the people who need to know it. For instance, spend a few minutes emailing all relevant people with company updates or meeting requests. Set up a daily meeting with your assistants and subordinates to inform them of any key updates. Not only will this get the required information across, but it shows that you actually care about your colleagues—that you actively want to keep them in the loop.

Mistake #2: Taking Undeserved Credit for Other People’s Successes

This habit involves unfairly claiming that you were responsible for an achievement that you actually had very little part in. For example, it’s claiming the credit for making an amazing sale when, in reality, a different member of your team did most of the work. 

Stealing credit is most frequent when people have been working on a team project that has an unclear division of labor. When you’ve been sharing tasks with colleagues, it’s difficult to know who deserves what credit when the project comes to a close. Some people capitalize on this uncertainty. They claim that they’re the main driving force behind the project’s success, even if this isn’t true. They become so focused on impressing their superiors that they’re willing to throw their peers under the bus.

This generates rage and bitterness on the part of the person whose credit you’ve stolen. That person will see your behavior as unforgivable, and their opinion of you will be forever tainted. They may tell other people about the injustice they’ve suffered, thus changing others’ opinions of you, too. You’ll find yourself gaining a reputation for being an unjust, selfish back-stabber.

The Healthier Behavior: Whenever you find yourself being congratulated for an achievement, consider how someone else might have contributed to your success. If someone else was involved, make sure that you share the credit with them. For instance, if you make an insightful point in a meeting, consider whether this was entirely your idea or if someone else in the meeting inspired you with their own insightful comment. If it’s the latter, make sure to give credit to the other person if someone praises your idea.

Mistake #3: Engaging in Favoritism

Favoritism is treating some of your team members better than others based on factors other than their job performance. For example, it’s giving a particular team member the most prestigious and fulfilling projects to work on, not because they’re the best worker you have, but because you like them as a person. It’s depriving another team member of opportunities for advancement, not because they perform badly, but because your personalities just don’t “click.”

This bad habit is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it breeds resentment among the members of your team who work hard and yet see few rewards simply because you don’t like them that much. If these people start to share their concerns with others, your reputation may suffer. Second, if someone on your team is spending lots of time trying to get you to like them as a person and therefore favor them, this diverts their focus from their work. If enough people become distracted from their work in this way, your team’s overall performance will decline.

Many leaders believe they’re well aware of favoritism’s pitfalls and would therefore never engage in it. However, in Goldsmith’s experience, many of them do so anyway. Goldsmith argues that this disconnect between intention and action occurs because favoritism is often a subconscious process. It’s an automatic response to people praising us and expressing their admiration for us. These people have made us feel good, so we instinctively want to make them feel good in return—even if they’re not actually a good enough worker to deserve our praise.

The Healthier Behavior: When you find yourself tempted to favor a particular team member, analyze why you’re doing so. For instance, are you only feeling positively towards this person because they’ve recently complimented or fawned over you? Based on their performance, does this employee actually deserve a reward? If not, refrain from giving them one.

Mistake #4: Becoming Obsessed With Achieving Goals

In and of itself, being goal-focused isn’t necessarily a flaw. Constantly working to achieve your goals is the only way you’re going to move forward in your career. 

However, Goldsmith argues that becoming too obsessed with pursuing your goals can lead to ruthlessness: feeling that you need to meet your goals, no matter how much your actions harm other people. This may lead you to engage in some of the other bad habits we’ve already discussed—specifically, those that involve you pushing others down while building yourself up. 

For instance, Goldsmith once worked with an executive named Candace. Candace was incredibly successful in her role and frequently met all of her performance goals. However, none of Candace’s staff ever stayed in their positions for long. Goldsmith’s job was to find out why Candace was so bad at retaining her staff. He discovered Candace was unpopular because she frequently took credit for her subordinates’ success. She was so focused on making it to the top of the corporate ladder that she was willing to sacrifice and hurt other people in the process. 

Ultimately, pursuing your goals ruthlessly will only hinder your ability to progress. The more people you hurt on the way up to the top, the more enemies you’ll make along the way, and the less popular you’ll become. You’ll gain a reputation for being cold-hearted, unpleasant to work with, and someone who only seems to alienate the people they work with. These qualities won’t serve you well in your future endeavors.

The Healthier Behavior: At every stage of meeting your goals, actively reflect on the behavior that’s moving you forward and consider whether it’s having any negative consequences. If it is, apologize to anyone you’ve harmed and modify your behavior. Only by constantly reflecting on your behavior will you be able to identify harmful goal obsession before it does you too much damage.

4 Leadership Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs

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Here's what you'll find in our full What Got You Here Won't Get You There summary :

  • Why many middle managers find it hard to move up the corporate ladder
  • The 21 harmful workplace behaviors keeping you from success
  • How becoming too goal-oriented can actually harm your career

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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