Skip to content

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

bad bossIt happens every day.

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

Done what exactly?

Talk about a leader behind their back about all the things 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.

There is no level of leadership that 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 do exactly you do that?

Here are 4 keys to making sure you create the kind of culture in which 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 in 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 the 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 being 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 thinks 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.

Don’t.

When an individual or team starts giving you critical feedback, they usually test the waters with something mild. Just to see if you’re going to 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.

Which 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 of 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

Want an hour with me on building high trust teams?

Team building isn’t easy, but I’d love to help you do it well by sharing some pro-tips and strategies.

I have a free live-training event coming up during which I’ll share 5 keys to building a high-trust team.

Registration is free and I’d love to have you and your team join me for it.

You can register here.

What Are You Learning?

What are you learning about giving and receiving honest feedback? I’d love to know!

Scroll down and leave a comment.

14 Comments

  1. Mary L. Guillot on March 27, 2020 at 7:51 am

    Leadership qualities that rely on upon the connection. Diverse circumstances require the leader to show distinctive qualities.

  2. DAVID WILSON on February 19, 2020 at 1:36 pm

    Excellent Article

    Love all your articles

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 19, 2020 at 4:38 pm

      Thanks David!

  3. Cory Haney on February 18, 2020 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks for the great article. I wish to implement this with our staff but was curious about some of the questions you ask to get to the root of the issue.

  4. Mark on February 18, 2020 at 7:36 am

    A lot of the reason that gossip occurs is that the ordinary workers aren’t getting any (truthful) information from the boss or the people above. If something is going to happen that will affect people’s jobs, they really want to know and too often the boss knows or gets an inkling but may be keeping things quiet at the request of high management. However, when people start fearing a reorganization or downsizing, any information would be useful since a one day head start on the next job search may be the difference in a good job and going to the unemployment line.

  5. Paul Byrne Noblin on February 18, 2020 at 2:20 am

    Carey has given me grace, as he allows me to post my ideas on his forums. I want to address Church leaders. I am a Practicing Discipline of Jesus Christ, and (if there is such a person), a Christian Mystic.

    The Key to the Universe;
    Revelation One Nineteen
    Write down a brief account of your day, your problems that day, and a list of tasks to do the next day.
    ©1985 Paul Noblin

    All walls will fall.
    It is the best thing that has ever happened since Jesus Christ.

    Good food should be:
    1. Nutritious.
    2. Delicious.
    3. Aesthetically Pleasing.
    4. Easy to prepare.
    &
    5. Cheap.

    A Footnote:
    Read Rev. 1:19 (KJV).
    “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;”
    Write down the past, present, and future.
    Align your inside mind with the outside world (reality including Christ), and you will be one with All.

    It seems to me that “The Church” is doing little to “wake up” the Children of God. Many go to Church year after year, and never smell the coffee. They remain asleep.

    I also believe that there is no such thing as a “Christian Death.” Jesus promised everlasting life and immortality to those who believed in Him. I believe that the instant before death, a Christian is simply “beamed up.” On the way to Heaven, the believer is tested by fire. All sin, and that which is impure, is burned or scooped up. Heaven is a perfect place. Some people will arrive in paradise, only as a cinder. This is why it is so important to be a Practicing Discipline of Jesus Christ, and conquer one’s flesh.

    Do you believe that the Bible is the Word of God? If so, why haven’t you read every Word of it? I recommend that all Christians read the Bible twice. Once for content, and another time for context.

    I want to thank Carey for all that he does. Bless him, his family, and his ministry. I believe that 2020 will be a great year for the true leaders, and the true members of each Christian Church. The time is right for a global Christian revival. When the end arrives, the Church will make a strong finish. Of this, I am certain. Thank you Church leaders too.

    Warmest Regards… Paul.

  6. Alternate Perspective on February 17, 2020 at 11:33 am

    While I do agree that good leaders need to be able to take criticism and maintain a flow of open, honest, communication with their employees, I think that it is also a leader’s responsibility to point out when a workplace is becoming toxic with gossip. I’m curious as to how you would balance accepting critical feedback from your employees with correcting poor behavior that damages team trust and workplace culture. I think it’s important to have a dialog of honesty that goes both ways and an agreement with employees that constructive criticism is always welcomed but underground negativity that damages team is not acceptable.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 17, 2020 at 9:30 pm

      That’s a great question. I think the point is that when they talk to you directly, gossip disappears. At least that’s my experience. We have almost no gossip as a result.

    • Mark on February 18, 2020 at 7:40 am

      Generally, unless one is ready to retire or be shown the door, offering critical feedback is not advisable. If you are the leader, you likely will not know about toxic gossip until there is an exodus of people. Even then, you may not know about the gossip.

  7. John Stow on February 17, 2020 at 6:28 am

    Great to be reminded of this. I wanted to check out how people rated my communication skills so I asked my team and other leaders which method was most effective when I contacted them. I feel far less confident with the spoken word than written and take pride in my well composed emails. When I speak I often hesitate and feel more vulnerable. To my big surprise, everyone – everyone – said ‘your emails are so comprehensive we often don’t reach the end – when you talk to us, John, we know exactly what you mean, right away!’ And you know, I still revert to email as first option, the harder the topic the more so, and forget it’s far better to call by or pick up the phone.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 17, 2020 at 9:31 pm

      That’s huge self-awareness now John. Way to go!

  8. bill (cycleguy) on February 17, 2020 at 6:15 am

    I am an older leader Carey (67) so I have some mileage on me. 🙂 I have not always been a good leader and sometimes even question that today. But I saw growth about 3-4 weeks ago over just this topic. I have not been kind to the OT at times, calling it boring, sleep-inducing, etc. (But I always believed it was an essential part of our faith and giving a greater understanding to the NT). After one particular sermon my youth pastor talked to me in staff meeting (the secretary was there and I think it gave him some comfort and boldness) and he talked to me about it. I am more than twice his age and he came into full-time ministry after having been in the banking business just about 7 years ago so I did not mind him doing it there. Instead of defending myself, getting all up in arms, etc I apologized to him and the church on the second Sunday after that as I was preaching on God’s Word as an essential truth. I will never again denigrate the OT. I’ve not always reacted as I should but your words struck a chord.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 17, 2020 at 9:31 pm

      I love your humility. – Carey

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Copy link