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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

15 ways leaders can set a bad example for their teams

It’s essential for leaders to not only model good behaviors but also to avoid modeling bad ones.

15 ways leaders can set a bad example for their teams
Members of Fast Company Executive Board share their expert insights. [Image: Courtesy of the individual members.]
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Most organizations have specific rules and protocols workers are expected to follow, as well as carefully developed missions and visions that are intended to guide the entire team’s actions. However, employees won’t just blindly follow these rules if the leaders who established them aren’t modeling that behavior themselves.

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And it’s not just about hard-and-fast policies and procedures either—teams are influenced by everything from a leader’s speech patterns to their attitudes. Consciously or unconsciously, employees often pick up habits, mannerisms, and mindsets from their managers and other higher-ups—an instinct that often trumps paying close attention to “the rules.” That’s why leaders must stop and think about the messages they may be unconsciously sending to their teams.

It can be difficult to know how you may be setting a bad example if you aren’t aware of some of the more common missteps leaders make. To help, a panel of Fast Company Executive Board members shared 15 ways leaders might be unknowingly setting a bad example for their teams and how they can turn things around.

1. BREAKING ESTABLISHED RULES

When you talk about rules, you’re not only speaking as a leader but also as part of the team. There are certain processes that need to be followed—for example, tasks should be done in a timely manner. Or, if there’s a need to put on safety goggles for a task, then leaders need to follow that rule too. Nothing is worse than seeing a manager or leader not following the rulebook. As leaders, all eyes are on us. – Lane Kawaoka, SimplePassiveCashflow.com

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2. NOT FOLLOWING THROUGH ON DIVERSITY INITIATIVES

Many leaders are (finally) championing diversity, equity, and inclusion in their organizations, but aren’t walking the walk—which is especially visible in their social media and thought leadership behaviors. Leaders need to amplify diverse voices and cite diverse sources, attend diverse events, insist on parity on conference panels, and stop supporting entities that over-index white and male. – Kristy Sammis, CLEVER

3. DISCOURAGING INNOVATION

Creating a culture of blame is destructive. It creates a fear of trying new ideas and directions that robs a company of potential value and solutions. It also consumes time and emotional cycles that could be used for the greater good. Don’t punish spot failures when someone tried something that didn’t turn out as planned (chronic failure at core tasks is a different thing). Encourage innovation. – Esther Kestenbaum Prozan, Ruby Has Fulfillment

4. FOCUSING ON PERFECTIONISM

When leaders focus on perfectionism, it can increase the risk of anxiety and depression within their team. Striving for excellence is a great way to reach peak levels of performance. However, perfectionism involves setting exaggerated objectives. Perfectionism can be self-imposed, but it can also be imposed on others—for example, when leaders set unrealistic targets for their team. This is simply unhealthy. – Andreea Vanacker, SPARKX5

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5. NOT ACKNOWLEDGING THE ROLE OF FAILURE

Failure is part of growth, and every team experiences it sometimes. As a leader, it’s important to let your team see that you experience your share of failure too—but you fail fast, learn from it, adjust, and do better next time. Teams that embrace failure as a part of growth take more risks and reap bigger rewards. Leaders need to lead by example. – Becca Chambers, Ivanti

6. FAILING TO DEFINE COMPANY CULTURE

Leaders who don’t intentionally create culture allow culture to be created by chance. By not defining core values, exercising those core values, teaching those core values to others, and defining success according to those core values along with objectives and key results, bifurcation and division are created among teams. It’s critical that teams have clarity regarding what’s expected of them. – Anthony Flynn, Amazing CEO LLC

7. BEHAVING IN WAYS THAT GO AGAINST COMPANY VALUES

Employees watch what you do, even in a time of hybrid and virtual environments. If you’re chronically late for internal Zoom meetings, for example, you’re sending the message that being prompt, and even keeping your commitments generally, isn’t important. If you tell employees transparency is a core value but don’t share openly with them, they’ll shut you out as well. – Scott Baradell, Idea Grove

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8. MAKING EXCEPTIONS FOR SHORT-TERM OBJECTIVES

Often, leaders talk about the importance of culture as the foundation for productivity and growth, yet make exceptions in the name of short-term objectives. A typical example: A top-performing salesperson gets a pass on bad behavior because they exceed sales targets. Worse is a leader who believes the rules don’t apply to them, which is effectively saying, “Our desired culture isn’t important.” – Chris Shipley, CR Strategy Partners

9. SENDING WORK-RELATED MESSAGES DURING OFF HOURS

CEOs who publicize the long hours they work by sending messages late at night to their internal team run the risk of communicating to junior team members that they need to make sacrifices in their personal lives in order to get ahead in business. Leaders should be conscious of the precedent they set for the rest of the company by taking time off and prioritizing their own work-life balance. – Lauren Salz, Sealed

10. IGNORING EMPLOYEES’ QUESTIONS AND CONCERNS

Sometimes it isn’t what a leader says or does that creates a negative impact; it’s what they don’t say or do. If you see questions being asked on your company chat platforms and ignore them, your team will think that communication doesn’t matter. As a leader, you need to talk to your team more, answer even small questions daily, and generally be active in creating the right work environment. – Syed Balkhi, WPBeginner

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11. NOT FOLLOWING THROUGH ON COMMITMENTS

If a leader doesn’t follow through on their commitments to their team, how can they expect their team to be willing to be held accountable themselves? Accountability is everything in a small business. You have to be able to rely on each other to achieve the goals the group set forth. It’s the foundation of success. – Brad Burns, Wayne Contracting

12. NOT MODELING A GOOD WORK-LIFE BALANCE

I think one area leaders sometimes get wrong is not exemplifying what a good work-life balance looks like. COVID-19 has brought more of our home lives into our work lives, and that means that there is more opportunity to see that balance on display. It’s a great opportunity to show who you are not just as a leader but as a person. – Liz Carter, ServiceMax

13. DISPLAYING PESSIMISM

As a leader, you need a healthy dose of pessimism to be aware of threats and to minimize risks, but displaying outright pessimism to your team is not a good approach. Sharing this pessimism with your team may be demotivating and may create anxiety, as they don’t have the same interactions, perspective on the organization, or accountabilities as you. – Krishna Kutty, Kuroshio Consulting Inc.

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14. HAVING A NEGATIVE ATTITUDE

Leaders should constantly remind themselves that their attitude and treatment of others are as important as the actions they take. Since I set an example for my team, I make sure I’m coming to work with a positive, realistic attitude about what we can achieve for the day. I try to be as creative as possible and make sure I’m recognizing and rewarding that quality in others. – Ryan Anderson, Filevine

15. NOT PRACTICING WHAT YOU PREACH

I believe leaders set bad examples for their teams when they don’t follow their own processes. Teams learn by doing, not by reading a manual or being told what to do. Therefore, it’s critical for leaders to lead by example and show their teams what’s expected through their actions and not just their words. – Scott Burgess, Continu