• Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Leadership blind spots: How being mean undermines your effectiveness

Leading with an open heart: The power and peril of vulnerability in the workplace

Imagine walking into a workspace where the air is thick with tension and harsh emails, caustic public dressing-downs, or sharp reprimands echo through the walls. Fear and intimidation reign supreme; employees walk on eggshells, afraid to speak up or take risks for fear of retribution; and the team’s morale is as low as the heavy sighs that punctuate the day.

At the helm of this environment is a leader whose approach is laced with meanness, a style that might be misconstrued as a stern commitment to excellence. Yet, beneath this veneer of brutal honesty and “telling it like it is,” lies an inconvenient truth: meanness is a leadership malfunction, not a virtue.

While some might mistake a sharp tongue for frankness or decisiveness, the reality is that the idea that being mean or harsh can be an effective leadership strategy is a fallacy that has plagued workplaces for far too long. While some may argue that a tough approach yields results, the truth is that such negative behaviour has a crippling effect on teams, organisations, and ultimately, the very fabric of leadership itself.

Q: “Leaders who resort to meanness as a management tool fail to recognise the fundamental truth that leadership is about more than just achieving results; it is about inspiring and empowering others to reach their full potential.”

The allure of meanness is often rooted in a misconception. It feels efficient, a shortcut to driving results through fear and intimidation. But true leadership thrives on a foundation of trust, respect, and psychological safety. When a leader prioritises harshness over empathy, they create an environment where employees are afraid to speak up, take risks, or innovate. Let’s delve into the nuances of how meanness not only hurts the individuals on the receiving end but also cripples the leader’s ability to lead effectively.

Leaders who resort to meanness as a management tool fail to recognise the fundamental truth that leadership is about more than just achieving results; it is about inspiring and empowering others to reach their full potential. By belittling, berating, or undermining their team members, mean leaders create a culture of fear and resentment that stifles collaboration and innovation. Instead of fostering a sense of loyalty and dedication, they breed animosity and apathy, driving away top talent and undermining organisational success.

Meanness is not a contained phenomenon; it ripples through the workplace, affecting everything in its path. A single act of unkindness can spread like wildfire, creating a culture of negativity that stifles creativity, collaboration, and the willingness to take risks. Employees who are treated harshly are less likely to contribute their ideas or point out potential pitfalls, fearing the wrath of their leader. This results in a homogenised way of thinking that can be the death knell for innovation.

Meanness can be more than just overt aggression. It can also manifest in subtler ways, like sarcasm, micromanagement, or public humiliation disguised as “constructive criticism.” These seemingly minor actions can have a significant impact on employee morale and well-being.

Some leaders wear their meanness as a badge of honour, a sign of their strength and decisiveness. They couldn’t be more wrong. Real strength lies in the ability to be compassionate, to understand the human element in the workplace, and to encourage growth through positive reinforcement. Being mean does not make a leader strong; it reveals their inability to harness the full potential of their team. It shows a lack of emotional intelligence—a key component of effective leadership.

Loyalty is not commanded; it is earned. When leaders are mean, they are essentially chipping away at the loyalty of their team members. Employees do not pledge their allegiance to fear; they devote themselves to leaders who respect and value them. A mean leader may retain employees out of necessity, but they will lose their discretionary effort—the above-and-beyond work that people willingly give when they feel valued.

Mean leaders often have a blind spot in their self-awareness. They fail to recognise how their behaviour affects their own reputation and the way they are perceived by others. A leader’s legacy is not defined by the revenue they generate or the deals they close, but by the impact they have on the lives of their team members. Being mean leaves a legacy tainted with bitterness and regret.

The costs of meanness in leadership extend beyond the intangible. There are tangible consequences that affect the bottom line. High employee turnover, increased absenteeism, and lower productivity are some hidden costs that come with a mean leadership style. In the cutthroat world of business, these are costs that organisations cannot afford.

The antidote to meanness is empathy. Leaders who lead with empathy do not see kindness as a weakness; they recognise it as the cornerstone of building a strong, resilient, and loyal team. Empathetic leaders listen, they communicate with clarity and compassion, and they are adept at recognising the individual strengths and challenges of their team members. They create an environment where feedback is constructive, not crushing, and where accountability is about learning and growing, not fear-mongering. It takes courage to create a safe space for open communication and collaboration. However, the rewards are substantial.

Interestingly, there’s a misconception that leadership is about barking orders and wielding power. But true leaders understand that their greatest asset is their people. By fostering a culture of respect, empathy, and psychological safety, leaders can unleash the full potential of their teams and create a truly thriving organization. So, ditch the mean act. The path to success lies in building a team, not breaking spirits.

Remember, leadership is a privilege that carries with it the responsibility to foster an environment where people can thrive. Being mean is an abdication of this responsibility. It’s time for leaders to introspect, to shed the outdated armour of meanness, and to embrace a leadership style that elevates rather than denigrates.


Dr. Toye Sobande is a strategic leadership expert, lawyer, public speaker, and trainer. He is the CEO of Stephens Leadership Consultancy LLC, a strategy and management consulting firm offering creative insight and solutions to businesses and leaders. Email: [email protected]