10 Signs of Bad Leadership in Your Company (and What To Do To Improve)

Lisa Ardill

Content Editor at Workvivo

12 Dec 2023

Good leadership is vital for organizational health and success. So why is it so hard to find?

No employee wants to deal with an ineffective leader with poor communication skills. But it can be even more concerning if you’re a CEO or high-level leader trying to change the leadership culture in your organization.

Today, we’re going to look at 10 common characteristics of a bad leader, offering guidance on each one. Then we’ll show you actionable steps you can take to change the leadership culture at your company. With these strategies, you can shape, train, and equip your managers to become the effective leaders your organization needs.

How can you identify a bad leader?

Bad leaders can harm organizational health and hinder growth. So to keep moving your organization forward, it’s vital to recognize the signs of bad leadership.

Properly identifying bad leaders starts with looking at behaviors. Most bad leaders will exhibit several negative behaviors, including mistrust, narcissism, constant negativity, avoidance of accountability, or consistently negative attitudes.

If you see these and other negative or destructive behaviors, chances are you’re looking at a bad leader.

How does bad leadership hurt a team?

Bad leadership is one of the primary causes of quiet quitting – not to mention actual quitting. One survey of 3,000 American workers found that as many as 82% of them were willing to quit because of a bad manager.

Over time, organizations experience long-term consequences if bad leadership isn’t addressed. Individual team members don’t thrive or contribute to the degree they could (if they even stick around).

And the organization as a whole suffers too. Morale, productivity, competitiveness, retention, and attracting new hires all suffer when bad leadership is allowed to continue.

10 signs of bad leadership to look out for 

Watch out for these ten behaviors and patterns that suggest you’re dealing with poor leadership in your work environment. We’ll provide insights for each, along with strategies for remedying these bad leadership qualities and creating better leaders.

1. Doesn’t trust employees 

When a manager doesn’t trust employees – even once they’ve shown they are worthy of trust – the entire organization suffers. An employee who knows the boss is willing to let them experiment and iterate is free to be creative.

But an employee who knows the boss is going to meet any new idea with suspicion (or instant dismissal)? There’s no reason for that employee to stay motivated or to exercise creativity.

The best way to build trust between managers and employees is to practice it. If a manager agrees with your assessment that they aren’t trusting employees, encourage them to actively choose to trust – and then measure the results. As managers see strong returns on trusting their team members, it becomes easier to sustain.

2. Micromanages 

No one likes to be told not just what to do but exactly how to do every single step (and when and where). That’s micromanagement in a nutshell, and it’s one of the quickest ways to stifle employee growth and autonomy.

Most often, managers micromanage when they don’t trust their people to get it right – or when they don’t trust their own skills as a manager. Of course, to the leader themselves, this might look a little different. They may feel like some people need more intense guidance than others, and the costs of failing to produce a quality result are high.

But there’s a balance to be found here. When employees are trained well and given clear instructions, managers should be able to take their hands off and let the employees do their jobs. The real art of management is knowing when to give that freedom and autonomy and when to step in as a coach.

If you’re a leader who’s constantly hearing complaints about micromanagement, it’s time to adjust the dial back toward autonomy. And if your people are frequently complaining about a lack of direction, you might need to compensate in the other direction.

3. Focuses on the negatives 

No one enjoys being around someone who’s constantly focused on the negatives. Yes, it’s a manager’s job to see reality and to identify and solve problems. But it’s easy to fall into a trap of focusing solely on those negatives and failing to appreciate the positives.

A negative leadership style degrades team morale over time, eventually harming performance. An employee who knows that the best possible outcome is no feedback at all (because all feedback is always negative) will never be motivated to excel. At best, that employee will seek to fade into the background. At worst, they head for the exit.

Most antidotes to an overly negative focus come down to intentionality. Choose to start every meeting with a win from the previous week. Adopt the sandwich method when giving constructive feedback. Make celebrating milestones and achievements a part of your routine.

4. Avoids accountability 

This sign is a tell-tale indicator that you’re dealing with a toxic boss. While the other behaviors we’ve discussed so far could be signs of toxicity, they all have other possible origins as well.

Employee trust can be a training or experience issue, and so can micromanagement. Focusing on the negatives is a flaw many of us can identify with, not always a conscious choice.

But avoiding accountability? That’s a toxic choice.

Leaders who create a lack of transparency and don’t take responsibility for their actions undermine the teams they lead, plain and simple. If you’re an employee who’s always worried about getting blamed for something that is clearly your boss’s fault, well – that’s a toxic environment. There’s no way around it.

This is a difficult trait to change at the individual level, but organizations can work toward a broader culture of accountability. Accounting for managers’ time is a great place to start.  And if your organization has any performance metrics that should be relatively even among managers, use them to show a bad leader the need for improvement.

5. Has no empathy 

A part of a broader set of skills and traits often termed emotional intelligence, empathy is key for any leader who wants to get to the hearts of their people.

Most employees want to be cared about on some level, and a leader without empathy fails to demonstrate that care. Over time, a lack of empathy will drain morale and harm employee wellbeing.

Asking about others’ opinions is one easy way to show some empathy. So is considering what others might need and verbalizing or acting on those considerations. Even a good sense of humor – laughing at a humorous story, responding kindly to office banter – can go a long way.

6. Sets unrealistic expectations 

Managers tend to work to get more out of their people. This is a good thing in theory, but there’s a limit to what any group of employees can realistically achieve. When managers set unrealistic expectations that go beyond those limits (or require an unsustainable level of performance over time), people get burnt out.

Over 43% of today’s employees report some level of burnout. And burnt-out employees don’t tend to be the best employees. Productivity goes down. So does creativity and motivation.

Worse still, employees experiencing burnout tend to quit. In one recent study, 40% of people who changed jobs cited burnout as the number-one factor.

One way to improve in this area is to interact candidly with the team or department. People aren’t always reliable judges of what they can and can’t achieve, but their own impressions are a good place to start. Also, prior performance data often makes a good benchmark for setting achievable goals for performance.

7. Doesn’t engage with the team 

This is the ivory tower leader – the manager who arrives at 8:00 a.m., closes their office door, and draws the shades. Aloof leaders who don’t interact or engage with their teams struggle to lead those teams well. They don’t know their people, they don’t know the challenges, and they leave team members unsure where to go for help.

The solution here is for managers to make themselves more available. We used to call this MBWA, or managing by walking around. It looks a little different for remote and blended teams, but the principle is still the same. People need to know you’re around and that you’re happy to engage with them.

8. Fears change or growth 

Leadership resistance to change and innovation is a sure way to sink nearly any ship. Change is an inevitable part of business, and often, change starts (or should start) with leadership.

A mindset shift can help here – instead of viewing change as a threat, try to view change as an opportunity for growth or greater success.

9. Doesn’t listen 

People don’t want to follow leaders who steamroll, interrupt, ignore, or fail to engage with what they have to say. But merely listening to the words coming out of a person’s mouth isn’t enough.

In leadership, active listening is the real key. Active listening involves eye contact, appropriate nonverbal responses, and asking open-ended rather than leading questions. Mirroring back what the person has said, in your own words, is a great way to ensure you’ve fully understood their message.

As a leader, try to avoid coming up with what you plan to say next while the other party is talking. Listen first, think second, respond third.

10. Fails to provide clear direction 

The leader who doesn’t offer clear direction to teams and individuals is just as maddening as a micromanaging boss.  People want to be free to exercise their creativity in completing work tasks. But they also want to understand clearly what those tasks are.

Unclear communication and vague direction can significantly disrupt team performance, as not all hands are rowing in sync – or even in the same direction. Leaders should work to provide clear goals (what we’ll achieve), unambiguous assignments (who’s doing what), and sensible workflows (which steps, in which order).

What to do to improve bad leadership 

If you see bad leadership in your organization – or perhaps you even see some of these traits in yourself – we have good news: bad leaders can become good ones.

All it takes is a little work and the right strategies, like the ones we’ve collected here.

Implementing leadership development programs 

Structured leadership development programs might feel a bit formal, but they can do a lot of good to address any knowledge gaps among leadership. Often, bad leadership traits come from a lack of awareness or knowledge – not maliciousness. So education can go a long way towards leadership improvements.

For example, a company might offer leadership training in active listening, complete with role-playing scenarios. An interactive workshop might also include a game where partners act out the other’s instructions literally, helping participants see just how challenging clear communication can be.

Increasing employee feedback 

Leaders who have struggled with appearing aloof, distant, or unresponsive to feedback can work to address this by actively seeking out employee feedback in a format and setting that works for them.

Sometimes, the issue is one of emotional intelligence, where the leader can’t respond properly in the moment. Give the leader the chance to evaluate the feedback in a lower-pressure environment, and the results could be surprising – in a good way.

Surveys, polls, and emails can all help to increase the amount of employee feedback coming in (and reduce the likelihood of a leader feeling cornered in the moment).

Workvivo is a great option here. Our social intranet makes it easier for employees to provide feedback and communicate with management, leading to increased satisfaction and better-quality feedback.

See how Workvivo transforms the employee experience.

Shifting culture focus to learning, inclusion, and diversity 

Often, organizational culture plays a critical role in shaping leadership behaviors. For example, a hypercompetitive, sales-oriented culture (say, a car dealership) tends to reward hypercompetitive leaders who are great salespeople.

Likewise, an organization known for secrecy, information siloing, and top-down leadership tends to attract leaders that fit that framework.

So wherever you can shift the focus of your workplace culture toward the values you want to see in your leaders, do so. You’ll attract the great leaders you want, and your current leadership will hopefully adapt or move on.

Fostering easier communication and engagement 

Poor communication in the workplace is harmful in all sorts of ways, but often, the cause isn’t all that nefarious. Some leaders just don’t know how to communicate, or they don’t feel like they have the tools they need to communicate easily to the right audiences.

Today’s organizations need streamlined communication channels for leadership to be effective, especially with distributed or remote teams. With an employee engagement app like Workvivo, teams and leaders can communicate seamlessly – no matter where they are in the world.

And with Workvivo’s social intranet, team members can engage with one another, seeing each other’s accomplishments and offering praise and feedback.

Using technology to enhance team/department growth 

Finally, the right technology helps to support both team growth and leadership development.

Companies need a single platform for crucial communication, company updates, knowledge management and training, and employee social engagement. This allows organizations to foster a stronger sense of camaraderie, better communication, and improved employee-manager relationships.

Workvivo’s workplace insights tool is a great way to solicit insights and feedback from teams. It also provides clarity on what content is getting the most engagement within your organization.

Let Workvivo help guide your workplace communications 

As you work to foster stronger leadership abilities among your leadership team, give them the tools they need to communicate well and to keep their teams involved.

Workvivo can’t turn bad managers into good leaders. It can’t create work ethic or self-awareness. But it can help nurture communication skills, facilitate better decision-making, and greatly enhance employee engagement.

Workvivo is the workplace engagement app that keeps teams informed and engaged. Plus, it gives managers a better way to build a positive company culture and gather feedback that can lead to more effective leadership.

Ready to see how Workvivo can solve your workplace communication challenges? Request your demo today!