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The Cognitive Cost of Poor Leadership

In the business world, we often overlook how leadership styles impact the mental load of employees. Poor leadership triggers an inevitable response. This leads employees to spend considerable energy contemplating not just “what if” and “what could have been” but also how to manage up. This can rapidly evolve into not only what to do if their position becomes untenable but crucially how much better life might be elsewhere. 

There is only so much time in a day, and power in the brain – this cognitive load comes at the expense of their actual work. The wasted effort is not just unproductive; it’s detrimental to both individual well-being and organizational success. We’ve all experienced bad leaders, some recognizable examples include:  

The Intimidating Leader – Employees often encounter leaders who are rude, aggressive, or generally unpleasant. The mental gymnastics involved in avoiding becoming a target for such bosses are immense. Subordinates find themselves consumed with strategizing ways to navigate these volatile interactions. The demoralizing impact is not just personal but extends to unwilling witnesses, particularly if they feel unable to act.  

The Unyielding Autocrat: The defining characteristic of this leadership style is a rigid adherence to their own decisions, disregarding the expertise and insights of their team. These leaders often have significant experience. They fail, not because of their lack of knowledge in a specific area, but due to their refusal to consider, acknowledge and incorporate the valuable perspectives of their team members. This obstinate refusal to budge from a chosen strategy can have disastrous results. It is not just frustrating and challenging for subordinates to mitigate but suffocates talent.  

The Political Operator – A particularly demoralizing scenario involves leaders who hoard credit and deflect blame onto their team. Navigating such politically charged environments inflicts a considerable mental toll. Employees must constantly be on guard against becoming scapegoats for failures, are denied their successes, and may feel pitched against each other. 

These are only a few examples. We’ve all experienced them and plenty of others -micromanagement, dismissive attitudes towards the ideas of subordinates, favoritism, indecision and strategic flip flopping. The unfortunate truth is, these leadership failings are endemic, as is the cost they generate. We know how damaging it is. I imagine you are thinking about several specific individuals right now. 

Reflect a moment – haven’t we all been guilty of one or more of these behaviors to varying degrees? We’ve had bad days, and snapped at people we shouldn’t have. We’ve had to lead in areas we don’t necessarily understand and been scared to admit it. We’ve been caught by surprise, and inadvertently taken credit for work not wholly our own.  

Having experienced these behaviors we’re all aware of the mental impact they have, and the impact that has on productivity. So how do we avoid causing them ourselves?   

Strategies for Positive Leadership: 

  1. Building on Strengths and Supporting Weaknesses: Exceptional leadership is about recognizing and nurturing the strengths of your team members while providing support in the right areas. It involves engaging with each team member, understanding their unique capabilities and challenges, and leveraging this knowledge to guide the team towards collective success. 
  1. Fostering a Collaborative Environment: True collaboration involves more than merely soliciting opinions; it’s about cultivating a space where team members feel genuinely safe and valued when offering their ideas. As a leader, this means being willing to adapt or even overhaul your own plan when a team member presents a more effective solution. It’s about recognizing the value in diverse perspectives and having the flexibility to integrate these insights into your leadership approach. 
  1. Reflective Management: Take a step back and reflect on your interactions with the team. Avoid imposing ideas unilaterally; instead, focus on listening and understanding their perspectives. It’s about balancing your vision with the insights and expertise of your team, creating a synergy that drives better results. 
  1. Strategic Alignment with Team Buy-In: Strategies should not only be effective but must also resonate with the team. When people believe in a plan, they invest more effort into its success. Encourage your team to own the strategy, making them active participants in its development and execution. 
  1. Creating a Safe and Trusting Environment: Ensure your team doesn’t worry about unfair treatment or waste energy on office politics. Establish an environment of trust and openness, where emotions and personal biases don’t overshadow professional judgment. 
  1. Mutual Understanding and Feedback: Promote a culture where understanding flows both ways. As much as employees need to understand your thought process, it’s equally important for you as a leader to grasp theirs. Regular, open feedback sessions can facilitate this mutual understanding, ensuring that everyone’s on the same page and working towards common goals. 

Instilling Leadership Qualities in Others 

Senior executives have a responsibility to foster these qualities across the organization. It’s not just about practicing what you preach but ensuring that effective, empathetic leadership is a shared value throughout the managerial ranks. 

The Role of External Review 

Finally, engaging a trusted, impartial third party to review your strategies can be transformative. An external viewpoint not only identifies potential pitfalls but also aids in garnering the internal buy-in essential for cohesive, focused team efforts. 

Reducing the cognitive load caused by ineffective leadership is not just about improving individual experiences; it’s about enhancing overall business performance. By adopting a more empathetic, collaborative, and reflective leadership style, and by seeking external insights, organizations can foster a more engaged, productive, and satisfied workforce. 

The Author

Chris is kind of obsessed with the brand fan thing. He’s helped companies truly transform experiences for customers and knows who does this best in the market.