How to Avoid Becoming The Leader Everyone Resents, Hates And Talks About

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It happens every day.

You’ve seen it, and maybe you’ve done it.

Done what exactly?

Talk about a leader behind their back about everything you think you could never say to their face.

Every single day, people vent about leaders at work, roll their eyes, express frustration, critique, and even make jokes about them.

Most leaders have no idea it’s happening to them or only a vague idea it is.

You recognize the dynamic. It happens even with top leaders of very successful organizations. Team members ask: So…who’s going to tell him? And usually, the answer is nobody. Nobody dares or nobody will.

No level of leadership exempts you from your weaknesses. You can lead one of the largest organizations in the world. You will still have weaknesses and frustrate your team.

In fact, higher levels of leadership don’t mask your weaknesses, it exposes them.

Higher levels of leadership don't mask your weaknesses, it exposes them.  Click To Tweet

The question becomes, how do you avoid becoming that leader: The leader that everyone resents, hates, and talks about when you’re not in the room?

One of the very best ways to do that is to make sure your team talks TO you about their frustrations.

If your team feels like they can’t talk TO you, they’ll talk ABOUT you to each other.

Leaders, if your team feels like they can't talk TO you, they'll talk ABOUT you to each other. And you probably won't like what you hear.   Click To Tweet

So, how exactly do you do that?

Here are four keys to creating a culture where people can talk to you as a leader, not just about you, when you leave the room. I’ll walk you through some fresh examples of my own leadership.

If you don’t think this matters, just remember—people don’t quit jobs these days. They quit leaders and cultures.

People don't quit jobs these days. They quit leaders and cultures. Click To Tweet

1. Ask…Then Brace Yourself 

The best way to avoid being the kind of leader everyone complains about is to ask your team for feedback. Directly. Face to face.

Then…brace yourself. Quite simply, you need to raise your pain threshold. If the feedback you hear from your team surprises or bothers you, don’t tell your face. Smile. Your team is giving you a gift.

Leaders, if the feedback you hear from your team surprises or bothers you, don't tell your face. Smile. Your team is giving you a gift. Click To Tweet

A current example.

I recently got some feedback from my team as part of a strategic planning retreat we did.

I specifically asked them to name the weaknesses they saw in the last year (we also covered strengths and opportunities). And I told them nothing was off-limits, and they didn’t have to worry about how I felt.

Well…they told me.

Some comments about my leadership included:

  • I can be impulsive.
  • Sometimes I panic when things aren’t going well.
  • I micromanage when you’re not sure about the outcome.
  • Sometimes our long-term goals seem unclear or vague.

You know what? They were absolutely right.

Sure, I was personally disappointed to hear that this is still how I’m leading after all these years (and yes, they had some encouraging things to say as well). But they were very accurate that this describes my leadership in seasons over the last year.

Here’s the bottom line. If you really want to lead effectively, you have to raise your pain threshold to hear that kind of feedback directly, honestly, and face to face with your team.

Please note, you:

  • Can’t wince.
  • Should not deny it.
  • Can’t defend yourself.
  • Should never sulk.

The correct words to use once you hear honest feedback are simple: Thank you.

This is the stuff that makes you and your team so much stronger.

Sadly, when you look at scandal after scandal in the church, business, government, or other leadership spheres, that kind of direct, honest, open feedback is missing because it’s often penalized.

Instead, leaders cultivate cultures of fear and intimidation, bully critics, deny feedback, and practice retribution. In extreme cases, I’ve even heard of bully leaders forcing staff to sign NDAs (non-disclosure agreements), so they can’t talk about how bad things were.

If you really want to create a healthy culture and grow your leadership, crave the feedback you’d usually curtail, even if it hurts.  Especially if it hurts.

My team was right. And now…we can keep growing.

So can I.

If you really want to create a healthy culture and grow your leadership, crave the feedback you'd usually curtail, even if it hurts.   Click To Tweet

2. Reward It

In case you missed it, honest feedback is something you need to reward when given.

Lots of senior leaders say they’re approachable when that’s so not true.

Remember, even if you think you’re a nice person, you hold the power to hire and fire people. Most people are afraid to tell you the truth because they’re afraid of being penalized, pushed to the side, passed over for promotion, or even fired.

So, when you get honest and even critical input, celebrate it.

In our feedback session (and in countless other meetings where I get feedback like this), I have to remind myself to let my team know not only that I’m grateful but that this is exactly what they should be doing and need to hear.

Say things like:

  • Thank you.
  • This feedback is a gift.
  • That’s really fair. Thank you. That’s exactly how it is sometimes.
  • I’m really grateful you care enough to share that.

Yep. Seriously.

If you think that’s really weird to do this at work, just imagine what would happen if this was the dynamic at home. Imagine if, in your marriage, your spouse received your next round of suggestions for improvement with that kind of grace. Imagine how your spouse would feel if you did.

This is the stuff healthy teams are made of (I remind myself).

And the team is only ever as healthy as the leader.

The team is only ever as healthy as the leader.  Click To Tweet

3. Ask More Questions

My guess is you’ll want to make the honest feedback moments as short as possible.


When an individual or team gives you critical feedback, they usually test the waters with something mild. Just to see if you will bite their head off or otherwise react negatively.

In other words, they usually have to go a few rounds before you hear the whole truth.

So, in addition to celebrating what they’ve shared so far, open up another round—in the most open tone possible—by asking questions like:

That was so helpful. Thank you. Anything else?

We really should get all our weaknesses (and mine) out on the table. What else are people seeing? What else could help us grow?

I’m really learning, and this is stuff I need to know. Any other thoughts or observations?

Yes, that takes incredible inner resolve, but it’s so worth it.

Usually, in the second or third round—when people feel safe—the big stuff shows up (my impulsiveness showed up in round three of me asking the question).

Yes, this takes humility. But I’ve learned you can get to humility through two paths:

  1. Voluntarily
  2. Involuntary

How does involuntary humility happen? Simple: when you get humiliated by others or by a situation.

Humiliation is simply involuntary humility. When you won’t humble yourself, others are happy to do it for you.

I’m trying to take the voluntary path moving forward. I don’t always get it right, but I’m trying.

Humiliation is simply involuntary humility. When you won't humble yourself, others are happy to do it for you. Click To Tweet

4. Practice the Two-Month Rule

Ongoing honest feedback from your team shouldn’t be an annual event or a performance review phenomenon (the annual performance review is going the way of the dinosaur anyway.)

You can make questions like those I share above part of your weekly meetings, but recently I heard Craig Groeschel mention another check that really struck a chord with me.

You can also have the best systems in the world and ask questions regularly but still not get honest feedback.

In a podcast interview I did with Craig (click here for the show, notes, transcripts, and links), Craig said so many leaders whose teams resent them think, “My team can tell me anything.” Meanwhile, they’re oblivious to how much their team struggles with their leadership.

Then Craig dropped what you might call the “Two Month Rule” as a guideline. Here’s what he said:

“If I was sitting down with that [unaware] boss, I would probably say when is the last time someone gave you really hard feedback, you took it, and you changed something, and everybody knows it?

If that boss couldn’t give me an example pretty quickly, I would probably say, ‘Then I think you probably have a problem.’

Meaning, like seriously, if I can’t name in the last two months where someone close to me brought helpful correction, I don’t have a two-month streak where I don’t need help, right? Do you?”

Mic drop.

It got me thinking…have I gone through two months’ spurts where all I heard is sunshine? Honestly, I’m just not that good. And neither are you.

This means it’s time to go back to the team and actively solicit real feedback.

For me, it’s not just a matter of leading better. It’s a matter of personal integrity, confession, and legacy. I want the people closest to me to have the best experience with me. That includes my wife, kids, team, friends, and close colleagues.

The people closest to you should have the best experience of you. Often in leadership, it’s the opposite.

The people closest to you should have the best experience of you. Often in leadership, it's the opposite. Click To Tweet

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.