Real Leaders

7 Bad Leadership Behaviors to Quit in 2021

If you want to thrive in the new world of work, you’ve got a lot to learn—and a lot to unlearn. Ed Hess suggests you make quitting those outdated (and harmful) leadership behaviors your resolution for the upcoming year. 

The times they are a-changing, and so is the nature of our work. And as our familiar world crumbles around us (thanks, COVID-19) — and technology keeps snapping up more and more of the tasks humans have always done — we’ll need a whole new set of skills. And that means leaders have some nasty habits to break.

If you’re looking for a good resolution for 2021, don’t focus on new things to start doing. Instead, vow to quit some old, counterproductive leadership behaviors that don’t work in today’s world.

The new world we’re entering has flipped everything upside down. The skills, mindsets, and ways of being that were once prized and sought after have become liabilities. And yet too many leaders can’t seem to get with the new program.

It’s like we have an Industrial Revolution hangover. On some level, we know command and control don’t work anymore. We know we can’t boss people into being engaged, innovative, and collaborative. We know fear doesn’t motivate. And yet, we just can’t help ourselves from falling into old, counterproductive leadership habits.

To greatly simplify this message, we must all be able to continuously learn, unlearn, and relearn by adapting to the world’s reality as it evolves. This is not easy, considering our inherent ego-driven need to defend what we think we know. It requires a whole new way of being and a whole new way of working, which requires a whole new way of leading.

Here are seven bad leadership behaviors to quit doing in 2021:  

QUIT telling people what to do. Command and control work well when you’re running a factory. In that setting, you expect people to be cogs—to do rather than think, problem-solve, and connect. In the Digital Age, though, you’ll need to lead people whose jobs require innovation, creativity, and emotional engagement. You cannot coerce or command people to do these things. Instead, you must create the conditions that enable them. 

QUIT scaring them into submission. Fear is an effective motivator when you need people to comply mindlessly. The problem is, if employees are afraid of negative consequences (from verbal abuse to being fired), they won’t take risks, suggest new ideas, report problems, critique others’ thinking. A company that tries to motivate by fear can’t become an “idea meritocracy,” where the best data-driven idea or judgment wins, regardless of rank, compensation, or power. 

QUIT thinking you’re so smart. Pre-Internet, the more you knew, the more valuable you were. In school, the higher your grades, and fewer your mistakes, the “smarter” you were. That is old-school “smart,” and it’s a liability in an age that requires constant learning, unlearning, and relearning. You’ll never be able to store in your head as much information as a computer, and you will not have fast, perfect recall like a computer. 

Leaders and employees alike need to be good at not knowing rather than knowing. That takes humility, which is the opposite of a big ego.

QUIT pushing so hard. In less complicated times, hard-driving, Type A leaders thrived. The needed results were clear, and leaders could push (themselves and others) until they were achieved. In a global economy rife with uncertainty and ambiguity, nothing is clear. Rather than driving results, leaders must slow down and foster engagement so people can work together to find solutions. This means leaders must exist in a state of inner peace — and help employees do the same. 

QUIT making snap decisions. In the past, when the leader’s word was law, making decisions quickly and enforcing them was a strength. Not anymore. The best leaders can slow down, engage with others, and listen with a nonjudgmental, open mind. They know that the kinds of high-level conversations that need to happen take time to unfold. Innovation and exploring the new is a process where the answers change as you learn. 

QUIT pitting employees against each other. Back when companies were military-style hierarchies, it made sense to compete for the boss’s favor. Leaders often encouraged such internal competition because it drove individuals to compete against each other. But now, in the Digital Age, high-functioning teams should trump individualism. What you want is collaboration in an “idea meritocracy” setting. 

Leaders need to create environments that result in caring, trusting teams where employees are naturally motivated to work together and help each other.

QUIT discouraging messy emotions. Back when employees functioned as human machines, emotions were unnecessary. In fact, they were liabilities. Employers expected people to leave their humanity at the door. Today, the opposite is true. Positive emotions are at the heart of learning, connecting, collaborating, and creating. They’re the building blocks of caring, trusting relationships. Great leaders will have to “get” and value the power of emotions. And they’ll need to make a point of showing employees they see and value them as unique human beings.  

In the Digital Age, our human uniqueness will depend on our emotional capabilities and how we manage our emotions. It will not be “all business.” It will be all about people and enabling the highest levels of performance in concert with technology.

Becoming a Hyper-Learner isn’t easy, but it is doable. It’s all about unlearning skills and behaviors that no longer serve us. I think most will agree that creating workplaces where people can thrive, grow, and become their best selves is worth the effort.

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