27 September 2023

How to avoid being a hypocritical leader

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It’s all too easy to be branded as a leader who doesn’t walk the talk. Dan Schawbel* outlines the little mistakes that build this perception and what to do about it.

As we move further into 2023 most business leaders will rightfully be focused on driving results and performance.

However, they shouldn’t ignore the opportunity to self-reflect and contemplate how their behaviour might be affecting their people.

One of the cornerstones of effective leadership is a high level of self-awareness, which typically falls within the broader umbrella of emotional intelligence.

Part of being a self-aware leader is having the ability to see when your actions don’t align with your words.

This is what we call hypocrisy, and in the context of leadership, it can quickly erode the trust of your workforce.

Leadership hypocrisy can take on many forms.

It could be as simple as wearing a suit and tie to a meeting when you’ve told your team members to dress casually.

Or it could be something more harmful, like encouraging your team members to work remotely, then going into the office every day and praising employees when they go in as well.

Now, I don’t think any leader wants or aims to be a hypocrite.

Most leaders are doing their best to deal with the day-to-day demands of their role.

Sometimes moments of hypocrisy slip through the cracks.

The issue is that when taken altogether, these small-scale instances of hypocrisy can add up to a much bigger problem.

That’s because when leaders say one thing then do another, it breeds a culture of distrust where employees don’t feel they can take you at your word.

This is a dangerous situation for any organisation to be in, but the good news is that it can easily be avoided.

Leaders who are able to honestly reflect on their shortcomings — and seek the feedback of others — can, over time, regain the trust of their people.

I’ll describe five areas where leaders may inadvertently be sending the wrong message by acting in a way that doesn’t align with what they’ve said or committed to.

Do encourage a culture of honest feedback; don’t consider yourself above receiving criticism.

No matter what you think of Elon Musk, his recent decision to create a poll asking whether he should step down as Chief Executive of Twitter, and his commitment to abide by the results, was admirable in some ways.

Of course, we now know that even though the poll results were in favour of him leaving, he’s stated he’ll be re-examining this after various sources pointed out how easy it is to manipulate public polling.

I’m not suggesting this exact feedback mechanism for most leaders.

However, I think there’s a lesson here for leaders about being open to receiving criticism.

The other side to this is being willing to then publicly share the feedback you’ve received from your team members, and follow this up with regular communications about how you’re addressing the issues they pointed out.

Do encourage your employees to be their true selves at work; don’t mask your identity to conform to what a leader ‘should’ look like.

Many organisations are doing a fantastic job of encouraging employees to be themselves, and this is having a real impact on inclusion and belonging at work.

However, most leaders still feel pressure to ‘code-switch’ or conform to traditional notions of what a leader should look like.

Employees who see their leaders engaging in this behaviour will feel that hiding their own identity is the only way to succeed.

Do help your employees take care of their wellbeing; don’t set a bad example in your own life.

​Most leaders are already enhancing their support, from offering better wellbeing benefits to making policy changes that allow employees to balance their work and personal lives more effectively.

However, some leaders aren’t setting the best example.

For example, only around two out of three executives use all of their vacation time, take breaks during the day, get enough sleep, and have enough time for friends and family.

Do ask your employees for their input; don’t just do nothing with their feedback.

While most organisations have mechanisms in place to obtain people’s input, the reality is that they don’t always use this feedback.

In fact, a 2021 study from my company and UKG found 40 per cent of employees don’t feel their feedback leads to actionable change.

When workers feel their voice is being ignored, it creates a cycle where they won’t bother to provide feedback anymore because they know it won’t make a difference.

I understand it won’t always be possible to give employees exactly what they want — but if you ask for their opinions, be prepared to do something.

For 2023, commit to take employee voice more seriously and remember to communicate with your team members about how their feedback is being used.

Do support employee learning and development; don’t be unwilling to invest in your own growth.

Coming out of the pandemic, workers have been more motivated than ever to develop their skills and progress their careers.

New research from my company and Amazon found that around two out of three employees said it’s likely they’ll quit within the next year because there aren’t enough opportunities for skills development or career advancement.

Notably, these numbers were even higher among Millennials and Gen Z.

Given these findings, leaders would be wise to bolster their organisation’s learning and development programs.

However, they should also be setting a better example by investing in their own learning and development.

The challenge is that all too often, leaders think they’re too busy for this.

The reality is that no matter how great a leader you are, there’s always room for growth.

​​*Dan Schawbel is a bestselling author and Managing Partner of Workplace Intelligence, a research and advisory firm helping HR adapt to trends, drive performance and prepare for the future.

This article is part of his Workplace Intelligence Weekly series.

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