It’s been said that the best way to know what something is, is to know what it’s not. Creating this contrast turns out to be a very effective way for adults to learn, and this also holds true for leaders. I recently participated in an online forum of HR professionals where a participant described her CEO’s recent behavior regarding employees who showed up late for meetings. When they arrived late he set a new rule—they would have to sing to the other meeting participants as their penalty.

Now, we all prefer that people arrive on time for meetings, and punctuality is a sign of both professionalism and mutual respect. But is shaming someone in front of their peers an example of being a good leader? Would this serve as good advice for others in leadership positions? One participant said, “The CEO got it right!” and others chimed in, “It works”; “This is brilliant.”

The first lone dissenter waded into the discussion: “It’s startling to see how eager we all are to haze our fellow employees.” I thought, Finally, someone sees the problem here. But then someone responded, “You consider this hazing? Hah. I say bravo to the CEO.”

I offered that this practice was an act of shaming, what experts on the role of emotion in the brain consider to be one of the most damaging feelings humans experience. To my surprise, I was mocked for being too soft. One participant accused me of espousing “pseudo-science,” so I posted a few published peer-reviewed articles before bowing out of what had become a fairly heated debate.

There was one person in the conversation who summed up my thoughts much better than I did. She wrote, “I’m really surprised at the number of people who agree with this. I mean, I’m sure it’s effective, but that doesn’t make it right.” She then concluded with what should be the key message to all CEOs: “I personally wouldn’t work for a company that used this or any ‘fear-based’ tactic to get people to comply with rules and regulations.”

There are other examples of bad advice I’ve heard over the years, two of which are listed below, along with the reasons I consider them ill-advised.

Fake it ‘Till You Make It

One of the worst things you can do as a leader is pretend to be someone you’re not. When an executive is widely perceived as being inauthentic, their leadership street cred declines rapidly. When colleagues sense the pretense they can become uneasy about every decision, wondering about what actions and words are based on reliable facts and analysis versus hunches and conjecture. Some leaders are just uncomfortable saying, “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure,” but it can be valuable for employees to see such vulnerability in their leaders. Instead of being ignorantly decisive, vulnerability invites others in to assist and it can bring teams together. The behavioral norm it sets in the workplace culture is that it’s better to ask for help rather than “fake it” into a potential blunder.

Don’t Be Their Buddy

This old notion that leaders need to be seen and treated as superior and aloof just isn’t as effective in today’s work environment as it was in the days of command and control management. I’m not saying you have to be best friends with every employee in your company, but you should make an effort to get to know their lives—who their spouses are, what they enjoy outside of work, what their favorite sports teams are, etc. When organizational leaders and employees interact on a more personal level, the work culture becomes more relational and employees respond with “it feels like family” when we ask them why they like coming to work in our employee engagement survey. Everyone wants to be seen and feel valued, so when an employee feels valued for more than the work they do, they become more invested in the work that includes that relationship.

Key Takeaways

  • Some conventional leadership tactics might be effective, but a shaming and coercive approach does not contribute to longer-term employee engagement and commitment.
  • Authenticity and vulnerability is a key attribute to effective leadership.
  • Relational workplace cultures thrive so leaders should invest time in getting to know more about employees than their work.