We probably all have a horror story about an overbearing boss – one who had an explosive temper, set unreasonable expectations, or micromanaged and nitpicked every move we made. These “bad bosses” are the subject of watercooler war stories, viral social media posts, even hit movies, and most leaders vow to be nothing like them.
After all, isn’t the secret of good leadership to put your people first? To be empathetic, compassionate, and understanding? Aren’t we supposed to be friendly and open and warm?
The short answer is yes – we are supposed to be all of those things. But not only those things. There is more to leadership than understanding your team’s perspective and empathizing with them. Good leaders must also set vision, deliver feedback, and hold people accountable. They must make tough decisions and set limits around appropriate and constructive behavior.
Which leads to the question… Is there such a thing as being too soft as a leader?
I believe the unequivocal answer is yes. Leaders who fail to lead with authority – those who don’t set expectations, who fail to hold people accountable, or who shy away from making the tough call – can be just as damaging to the organization and their teams as their louder counterparts. Don’t agree? Here are three surprising consequences I see in organizations with leaders who are too soft.
One of the central roles of the leader is to set the vision for the team. This effort can and certainly should be informed by discussion with the team members, but at the end of the day it is up to the leader to declare “This is what we’re doing and this is why we’re doing it.”
In organizations where leaders step away from this responsibility entirely or try to delegate too much of it to their teams, vision becomes fuzzy. The is no clear direction for the team. Instead, individuals are left to pursue their own agendas, creating frustration and dysfunction. In fact, many of the turf battles I observe in organizations can be traced back to a lack of clarity in the vision and to a leader who is uncertain about his or her role in the process.
Lagging People Development
Ask leaders what they hate most about their job and many will say it’s giving negative feedback. That’s understandable. Delivering even the most constructive of criticism can bring up deeply ingrained fears of hurting others or being disliked. Add to that the fact that many of us equate giving negative feedback with “being mean” and it’s no surprise we’d rather skip it.
But the truth about feedback – both positive and negative – is that without it, people don’t develop. They don’t learn what it takes to get to the next level. They don’t understand their own blindspots and seek to improve. Over time, these failures lead to an organization with poor people development. Its employees don’t progress and often end up leaving the organization for other opportunities. All because their leaders couldn’t bear to have the tough conversation.
Lack of Engagement
Show me an organization with poor employee engagement, especially among top performers, and I’d be willing to bet their leaders have trouble holding people accountable. Just like giving feedback, accountability conversations can feel risky. Our fears and insecurities can easily convince us to accept excuses or turn a blind eye to performance we know isn’t acceptabl
But, when poor performance is tolerated over and over, it is extremely demotivating for the rest of the team. Those who are meeting expectations feel their efforts are ignored. Even average performers grow frustrated when faced with others who aren’t pulling their weight but bear no consequences from it. If not addressed, these frustrated employees will eventually leave.
While failing to set a clear vision, shying away from giving tough feedback, and refusing to hold people accountable can feel like harmless mistakes as a leader, they are anything but. Being too soft in your approach can have real consequences for your team and your organization.
True leadership requires balance. You must be empathetic and understanding, while still being able to drive results. You must be friendly and open, while still holding the line. It’s a tall order but one you achieve with dedication, self-awareness and practice.
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