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6 Common Leadership Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them


Among the leaders I’ve served during 17 years of public service, a handful outshine the rest. They are the ones who inspired and encouraged me to perform at my best, offering autonomy, opportunities for mastery and an awareness of my value and purpose in the organization. Author Daniel Pink cites these keys to individual motivation in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us.

As a leader it is simple to conceptually identify the principles one should embody based on those who were in the role before. But the challenge is avoiding the pitfalls that can sabotage even the best intentions. According to leadership coach and former presidential adviser Christine Comaford, here are six common pitfalls that make it difficult to motivate employees to collaborate, innovate and perform at their highest level:

  1. Failing to respond to emails. This is an all-too-common leadership misstep. While supervising multiple platforms, I received about 400 emails each day. If an email was not addressed to me, or even if it was and didn’t reach a certain threshold of importance, I’d likely not respond or overlook it in favor of other priorities. Regardless of my intent, I was communicating to subordinates that they are neither valued nor important enough for a response. For a simple strategy to wade through masses of email and ensure employees get a response, consider a slight variation of Franklin Covey’s 5 Choices. This approach suggests that every email should be acted upon, resulting in an appointment, task, or filing it appropriately. But a new twist should be added: If the email is from an employee, the action should at a minimum be acknowledgement and appreciation for the message.

  1. Failing to provide feedback. Acknowledgment and appreciation is not limited to emails. Employees should receive regular feedback -- positive and negative. Establish a strategy that frames expectations for all parties. Consider setting SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound). This approach is “rational and fact-based rather than emotional and vague,” according to management consultant Victor Lipman.

  1. Acknowledging people only when they make mistakes. Napoleon Bonaparte said: “Give me enough medals and I’ll win any war.” People are motivated by recognition, and positive feedback shows employees they are valued and important to the organization. Yet so often, leaders acknowledge employees only when they make mistakes. Studies conducted by leadership experts James Kouzes and Barry Posner show “performance was higher when people were led by someone who gave more encouragement.” Leaders should mark their schedule and create tracking mechanisms to ensure that every employee gets some form of recognition at least once every 90 days and in greater frequency than negative feedback. When was the last time you provided an employee a monetary or nonmonetary award?

  1. Failing to celebrate success. Positive recognition builds the individual, and celebrating helps build the team by fostering camaraderie and a sense of belonging. Bring the team together for events large or small, where achievements are publically recognized. A strong team is greater than the sum of its parts. Form your teams around a common purpose and schedule times to celebrate at intervals such as reaching milestones of achievement.

  1. Showing favoritism. When organizations are viewed as nepotistic, subjective and nontransparent, it leads to resentment, mistrust and a hostile work environment. Never give out undeserved awards and always maintain professional relationships in the workplace. To manage perceptions, communicate with employees clearly and often and set standards for awards and recognition that are quantifiable and objective. Would your subordinates say you have a closer relationship with some more than others?

  1. Burning out employees. Organizations have a tendency to overload high performers with work, but it’s imperative that all employees maintain a proper work-life balance. People who devote attention to their personal life perform better in their professional life. Leaders should create an environment where employees can make their needs known, boundaries are respected, work is set at a reasonable pace, and the signs of burnout are recognized.

Leading a collaborative, creative and energetic team requires more than understanding the mission and capabilities of the organization. Leaders must also communicate to employees that they are valued. Are you avoiding the common missteps that could sabotage your efforts?

Randall Trani, a career civil servant at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Army veteran and former diplomat, attends Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Connect on Twitter @randall_trani. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of DIA or any other government agency.

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