2 Early-Warning Signs Your Leadership Style Is Too Harsh For Your Empl

2 Early-Warning Signs Your Leadership Style Is Too Harsh For Your Employees

This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ

Leaders are under huge pressure to get results. But sometimes that pressure manifests into a leadership style that’s so harsh it makes employees buckle under the intensity. As I’ve noted elsewhere, there’s a fine line between pushing people to achieve greatness and pushing so hard that it makes them crack.

There are four basic leadership styles: Pragmatist, Idealist, Steward and Diplomat, and great leaders exist in each of these styles. But one particular style runs the greatest risk of coming off as too harsh—the Pragmatist. (Take the leadership styles assessment to assess your own style.)

Leaders like Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, and the late Steve Jobs are Pragmatists. Pragmatists have high standards and they expect themselves, and their employees, to meet those standards. They’re driven, competitive, and they value hitting their goals above all else. They can be bold thinkers, unafraid of taking the road less traveled (even when others struggle or feel anxious). They are hard-driving and often enjoy smashing through obstacles. (You can read about how this leadership style compares to others in my Forbes article "Which Of These 4 Leadership Styles Are You?")

Clearly, this hard-charging leadership style can, in Steve Jobs’ words, "make a dent in the universe." But this style can also be exhausting for employees, especially if your team is already a bit burned-out. And if your employees are currently feeling anxious, then this style isn’t just exhausting, it can seem overly harsh.

Now, some leaders don’t care if they come off as harsh; after all, these leaders were hired to get results, not make friends, right? The problem is that you won’t get the results you seek if your employees are curled up, fetal position, in the corner. Difficult and challenging tasks can be motivating (especially to high performers), but when "difficult" turns into "impossible," employee performance will drop precipitously.

Here are two signs that your employees are feeling overwhelmed by your leadership style. If you use these signals as an early-warning system, and follow the tips that follow, you’ll be able to soften your leadership style just enough to get your employees back into a good groove.

Sign #1: Your Employees Are Anxious.

How can you tell if your employees are anxious? Well, you can ask them, but when employees think their boss is too harsh, they usually won’t answer direct questions like “Are you feeling anxious right now?” (And frankly, asking that question so bluntly has the potential to push them over the edge).

So instead, you’ve got to watch and listen to what they do and say. First, anxious employees will make mistakes and miss deadlines (people don’t typically perform as well in panicked states as they do in a more relaxed frame-of-mind). And second, when these anxious folks make mistakes, they’ll often beat themselves up, saying things like “I just can’t do this” or “I’ll never finish in time” or “I’m going to get fired for sure.”

Catastrophizing is magnifying an unpleasant situation into a life-and-death catastrophe; exaggerating a bad situation into an intolerable one. And anxious employees are especially prone to catastrophizing. When you hear your folks say words like ‘never’ or ‘impossible’ or ‘failure’ or ‘can’t,’ you’re often hearing catastrophizing, and thus, anxiety.

While your inclination may be to yell some exhortations to ‘suck it up’ and ‘stop whining,’ that’s the wrong move. Instead, back off a little, break your project into smaller pieces so people aren’t so overwhelmed, and calm your voice. You don’t have to invite everyone into the courtyard to join hands and sing folk songs. Just dial down your intensity by 20%. This will give employees a chance to regain their emotional footing, and once that happens, their performance will shoot back up.

Sign #2: Your Employees Don’t Bring You Bad News

Every company is going to have bad news. Whether the issues are big or small, balls will be dropped, customers will be disappointed, and deadlines will be missed. While you can’t prevent bad things from happening, you can ensure that you know about them as soon as they occur.

Denying bad news doesn’t make it go away. In fact, the opposite is true. Leaders who know what’s going wrong in their operations generally have a higher career survival rate than those in denial. And to know what’s going wrong, you need employees who feel comfortable enough to walk into your office and say "Boss, we’ve got a problem…"

So pay attention to whether you get bad news (and how much of it you get). If the information flow is weak or nonexistent, it may be because employees are terrified to walk into your office and speak the truth. And if that’s the case, then your leadership style has become a bit too harsh.

Soften things up a bit by asking your employees what’s been getting in their way and how you can help fix it. This gentler version of ‘what’s going wrong’ is much more likely to get you honest answers. And then, when you get honest answers, take extra pains to avoid any blame or anger. Be grateful for the insight you’ve just received (and try saying ‘Thanks for sharing with me’).


Challenging your employees to "reach for more" is a cornerstone of great leadership. But you do want to guard against pushing your team so hard that they buckle under the pressure. Keep an eye on these two warning signs, especially if the leadership styles assessment identified you as a Pragmatist. Your employees, and your bottom line results, will be better for it.

Mark Murphy is the author of HARD GoalsHiring For Attitude and Hundred Percenters.

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