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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What makes a negative leader? What are some examples of bad leadership?
In his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith discusses five bad habits of leadership. These five bad habits center on either negative leadership (for example, through anger, criticism, or hurtful comments) or withholding positivity (for instance, by refusing to praise people).
Here are the five top habits to avoid when it comes to negativity as a leader.
Bad Habit #1: Making Harmful or Hurtful Comments
Making harmful or hurtful comments to your colleagues means insulting or belittling them in some way. For example, you might tell someone who’s made a sub-par suggestion in a meeting that they’re stupid and a waste of space, or humiliate someone by publicly mocking a time when they failed or made a mistake.
Many leaders think harmful comments serve a purpose. For instance, they believe that being rude or harsh to an underperforming employee will shock them into finally improving. Likewise, they may think that putting other people down is an effective way to build themselves up and gain more power as a leader.
But any possible “benefits” of being rude pale in comparison to the harm it does. If you’re hurtful to the people around you, they’ll quickly lose respect for you. You’ll gain a reputation for being unkind—a reputation that won’t serve you well when you look to progress in your career. This reputation will persist even if you apologize to the people you’ve hurt. Ultimately, these colleagues will never see you in the same way again, permanently damaging your working relationship.
The Healthier Behavior: If you find yourself tempted to make a hurtful or harsh comment, consider what the benefits of doing so will be versus the costs. For example, will being incredibly rude to a slacking employee actually improve their performance? Probably not. It’s more likely that the employee will get upset and you’ll look like a jerk. Therefore, being rude to this person probably isn’t worth it.
Bad Habit #2: Expressing Anger Towards Others
All of us get angry in the workplace from time to time—for instance, when a decision doesn’t go our way, or when a colleague negatively interferes with our work. However, you’ll create problems if you regularly express this anger—especially if you direct it at your colleagues.
If you frequently lose your temper in the workplace—for example, if you shout at your team members, or rant and rave to your manager about your problems—your reputation will suffer. People will see you as volatile and out of control, not a dependable and respectful employee. Unfortunately, in Goldsmith’s experience, volatility is a reputation that lingers. It often becomes a person’s defining trait, with their strengths being forgotten.
Some leaders argue that anger can, at times, be a useful management technique. For example, they claim that getting angry at underperforming employees may drive them to change their behavior. In reality, most people don’t respond to anger with contrition and renewed hard work. Instead, they respond with anger of their own—specifically, fury that their leader would treat them in such a way. This leads to resentment growing and working relationships being fractured.
The Healthier Behavior: When you feel yourself getting angry in the workplace, try to remain calm and refrain from expressing your emotions. For example, quickly remove yourself from the anger-inducing situation. This will give you time to cool down before responding. If this isn’t possible, take deep breaths and pause before you react. Remind yourself that getting angry is only going to make you look bad and probably isn’t going to resolve the frustrating situation.
Bad Habit #3: “Shooting the Messenger”
An extension of expressing anger towards others is “shooting the messenger.” This means getting angry at the person who’s been tasked with telling you something you don’t want to hear, such as bad news or criticism. For instance, if your assistant tells you that your boss can’t make time to see you, “shooting the messenger” is shouting at the assistant in frustration.
In situations such as these, the messenger is just passing on information that someone else has given them. It’s ultimately not their fault that you’ve received bad news or been criticized. Therefore, directing your anger at them isn’t really fair. However, you do so anyway, because you feel you’ve got to get your frustrations out somehow. The messenger is an immediately available scapegoat.
Ultimately, “shooting the messenger” will make people wary of you and give you a reputation for having a temper. Likewise, it’s going to make you seem like an unjust leader. After all, you’re directing your rage at someone who isn’t at fault.
The Healthier Behavior: When someone brings you bad news or criticism, simply thank them for telling you and move on. If you’re too upset or angry to do that, just say nothing at all. It’s better to stay silent than lash out. Remember that it’s not the messenger’s fault that they’ve had to tell you something you didn’t want to hear, so they don’t deserve your anger.
Bad Habit #4: Expressing Relentless Negativity
Some leaders become what Marshall Goldsmith’s wife refers to as “negatrons.” “Negatrons” are walking, talking manifestations of negativity. Whenever anyone presents them with a suggestion or an idea, they immediately jump to explain why it won’t work. They do this even when nobody has actually asked for their input—they can’t resist adding their negative two cents into every conversation.
Often, “negatrons” tell themselves that they’re highlighting the problems with people’s ideas to be helpful. In reality, this behavior is often more about the “negatron” making themselves feel superior. By criticizing an idea, they’re demonstrating that they know better—that they’re perceptive enough to spot problems the idea’s creator didn’t consider.
Becoming a “negatron” is a sure-fire way to alienate the people you work with. People aren’t going to ask for your input if all you’re going to do is spread doom and gloom. While negativity does sometimes have its place—for instance, if someone’s idea is truly, irredeemably disastrous—unless you temper occasional negative comments with lots of positive ones, people are quickly going to get sick of you.
To illustrate a “negatron” in action, Goldsmith relates the example of Terri, a woman who used to organize his corporate lectures. Terri would spend a lot of time trying to convince Goldsmith that speaking at certain companies wouldn’t be a good idea. For instance, she would claim that a certain company “couldn’t afford” Goldsmith, or that its employees “won’t listen to you anyway.” Eventually, Goldsmith got sick of Terri’s negativity and stopped working with her.
The Healthier Behavior: Self-monitor to ensure you’re predominantly putting positivity out into the world. If you find yourself slipping into “negatron” habits, stop before you express your negativity and consider whether doing so is actually necessary. Is the person’s idea really that bad, or are you putting them down just to feel better about yourself? If you conclude it’s absolutely imperative to say something negative, try to temper your criticism with positive comments.
Bad Habit #5: Refusing to Praise or Recognize People
Successful people often lose sight of the importance of praising or recognizing others for their achievements—for example, congratulating a team member for making a great sale. This reluctance to praise develops for a number of reasons. First, managers might feel that good work should be a “given” among their subordinates and is therefore not worthy of celebration. Second, they may believe they’re too busy to waste time giving out kind words. Finally, they may think that since they’ve never been praised for their good work, nobody else deserves praise, either.
Ultimately, refusing to praise the people around you is a tell-tale sign of negative leadership. Not only is it unkind, but it’s also going to sow resentment and disrespect among your colleagues. You’ll develop a reputation as an ungrateful and self-absorbed leader who won’t give others the credit they deserve.
Likewise, withholding praise denies people the positive emotional payoff they usually get from working hard and succeeding. People will start to think that putting effort into their tasks isn’t worth it since they won’t be rewarded for doing so. They’ll lose motivation, and their job performance will suffer. You’ll no longer get good results out of your team—something that will damage your reputation even further.
The Healthier Behavior: Set time aside every week to consider your team’s recent achievements and pass on praise accordingly. Follow the example of one of Goldsmith’s clients, who made a list of all the people he managed or worked with. Twice a week, he looked at the list and considered if any of these people had done anything worth recognizing. If they had, he sent them a quick email or called them to say well done.
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- 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