Common Leadership Errors: Failing to Help the Human Thrive

For the last blog in this series, I decided to take a broader and holistic topic that is commonly seen in organizations. While this topic does not lend itself nicely to short examples of leadership errors and what leaders can do differently, it is something all leaders in organizations need to take a hard look at. The question leaders need to ask themselves is, “How do we truly view employees in our organization?” Are they a means to an end (i.e., profitability), a necessary evil (i.e., products have to be produced by someone), something to be controlled, or is there a more human element? To answer this question, you have to look beyond slogans and visionary statements to how employees are treated, the policies and procedures employees come into contact with, and the leadership practices that directly affect employees and their wellbeing. This blog is dedicated to identifying some of these failure points and leadership errors. 

This error occurs when leaders (and the design of the organization) create a win/loss environment, where the organization is designed so that its success is maximized at the expense of the humans inside the organization. Organizations whose central design is based on win/lose create an overarching theme (what behavior science calls a meta contingency) that only rewards performance that contributes to short-term organizational success without regard to the toll on employees. 

Under these conditions, there are three typical ways in which this is observed.

Causes of the Error

  1. The company leads with a hyperfocus on profitability. This often leads to additional unintended consequences that reward slashing workforces, postponing much needed maintenance or innovation, and engaging in illegal or unethical behavior to drive up profit. Profitability is, of course, an important business metric. Companies would not survive without it. However, if this is the only focus, leaders may encourage whatever it takes to increase profitability and be positively reinforced for doing so. This often includes overworking and underinvesting in employees while paying them as little as possible. 

  2. Employees are seen as a problem. When employees are “the problem,” then they are what needs to be fixed. This view leads to employees being seen as a liability and an expendable resource that should be used up. It also affects how management attempts to lead employees, focusing more on gaining compliance and giving orders, using a “do it or else” approach to management. Policies and procedures are weaponized, giving leaders multiple tools to enforce rule-following. When undesired behaviors are seen, solutions under these conditions typically involve punishment of the performer’s behavior through negative consequences without any analysis of why that behavior is being encouraged. 

  3. Employees are seen as a number. Humans are social creatures. We like who we like and would do almost anything for the people we love. However, this social attachment does not exist for all people equally, and there are ways in which this works against us to create an “us vs. them” situation, seeing employees as “them.” When companies reward looking at employees as a number, it creates a situation where management does not personally invest in their direct reports. Not only does this affect how employees view the organization, this lack of connecting decreases a leader’s ability to have influence and further increases the use of “do it or else” management.

How to Avoid the Error

Instead of failing to help the human thrive, leaders and organizations should redesign the core purpose of the company to include longer-term success factors with consideration of human wellbeing at the forefront. This creates a fundamental shift in the organization’s operating principles and values much like Simon Synek describes in his book, The Infinite Game. He proposes that “winning” is not the purpose of an organization, because there is no real finish line. Therefore, unlike the win/loss operating environment, “winning” cannot be a goal. The primary objective should be to focus on progress. 

To address the three errors described above, companies can develop an overarching theme to reinforce behaviors consistent with the following objectives.

  • Lead with vision, mission, and values. The vision, mission and values of an organization are aspirational in nature. Using these statements as core guides, principles, and purpose will help leaders move away from short term gains and focus more on progress and getting better. At a behavioral level, organizations can use these to pinpoint critical leadership behaviors at all levels that exemplify living out the organization’s purpose. Once defined, reinforcement and reward systems can be adapted to support those behaviors. This will help leaders “live out” key leadership behaviors and be a role model within the organization. At an organizational level, leading with these statements will help ensure investments and resource allocation are done with purpose, and not to support a short-term goal that works against the organization long-term. 

  • Build psychological safety and maximize positive reinforcement. Another core shift organizations should make to help the human thrive is a focus on building resilience (i.e., focusing on learning and growth), purposeful building of psychological safety (i.e., building unity and belonging), and creating systems, processes and aligning leadership behaviors to maximize positive reinforcement for critical behaviors throughout the organization. Combining psychological safety and positive reinforcement will foster a culture of trust, support and innovation while earning discretionary effort and ensure work is done the right way. 

  • Help employees achieve their personal goals. A person’s core values, and who they want to be, can be powerful tools in creating alignment between the organization and the workforce. However, many people do not know what their core values are and what they want to achieve (personal growth and development) long-term. Organizations that help individuals define and work towards their personal goals will further develop a since of belonging and dedication towards the organization. This investment in employees creates the opportunity for everyone to see their role as more meaningful and creates continuous improvement as a standard within the organization. 

Organizations are made up of humans. Humans do the work and produce the business outcomes. Therefore, a deliberate investment in helping people within the organization thrive will improve both peoples' personal lives and the organization. This core shift in an organization’s focus and design will create a win/win for both the organization and the people within it. This will improve the work culture and drive organizational success. If you’ve made it this far, I truly hope you’ve enjoyed this series on common leadership errors. It has been an entertaining topic to write about. I hope you’ve applied learnings from these blogs to improve your leadership skills and your impact on others.

Other blogs in the Common Leadership Errors series

Focusing on What You Don't Want

Being Nice and Expecting Influence

Failing to Create Sustainability

Failing to Evolve

Failing to Develop People

Focusing on Backward Accountability 

Retraining Fixes Everything

The Should vs. Is Leadership Error

Being Vague and Expecting Perfection

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.