Guest Blogger: Linda Hills

A former manager of mine was promoted to SVP of HR in a large organization. It wasn’t a surprise – she had an outstanding reputation within the organization as a strong leader, an insightful individual and a great person. 

To everyone, that is, except the people who worked for her. 

To be clear, she was all those things to those of us in her hierarchy as well, but we were privy to a side of her that others weren’t. When something went wrong, Mrs. Hyde appeared and sent people running for cover.  She became passive aggressive, trying to maintain a veneer of her usual self, but the anger was palpable. Comments were unnecessarily nasty, nothing was good enough and she would lash out; basically the behaviour you would expect from a bad people leader. 

It was clear during those times that her focus was herself, and she was unable to worry about the impact on her employees. Those of us who worked for her found it tough to hear the accolades given by those outside her span of control.

Position doesn’t equate to great people leadership. 

Woman at desk looking worried and stressed.There is nothing novel in this story; it happens in every organization at every level, every day. People go to work every day under a cloud of dread not knowing what version of their boss is going to show up. They feel relief when the leader is showing up well that day.  On the other days, employees do their best to stay well under the radar and hope they aren’t the one in the crosshairs on that particular day.

What these leaders fail to understand is that they will be defined by their worst behaviour. 

It doesn’t matter how they behave the rest of the time, their behaviour when things go wrong becomes part of their brand.  They aren’t usually aware of it, unless someone has the courage to give them candid feedback, which is rare. And even after the candid feedback, they tend to minimize these situations and focus on how they are when things are going well. 

They don’t feel they should have to change, because for them, the majority of the time they do a great job of people leadership and that it’s unfair to be misrepresented because of a few incidents. Leaders don’t realize the impact of these incidents; they erode trust, build fear and slowly eats away at employee’s confidence.

The problem lies with the brain’s negativity bias

image showing negativity bias feedback loop

Image: Eric Veldkamp

Therein lies the problem. Thanks to the brain’s negativity bias, those incidents are “magnified” for those who experience them and overshadow the good stuff. Memories associated with bad behaviour/negative emotions are more powerful than those associated with good behaviour.  So while leaders minimize, employees magnify bad behaviour: this impact gap results in highly divergent impressions of their people leadership skills.

The really tough part about people leadership is that it takes a lot of energy and resilience to be on form all the time. Some people try to mask their anger during tough times, but it takes even more energy to “fake it”. Nobody can sustain that kind of inauthentic behaviour for very long.  Even if they’re better at it than most, they aren’t fooling the employees who pick up non-verbal cues of displeasure. So most end up giving into instinctual behaviour eventually, justifying it as temporary or minimizing it as not that big of a deal. They may even privately feel bad about it for a few minutes, but then manage to swat that away. 

It’s easy to be a great people leader when things go well.  The true test of leadership is what happens in tough times, and leaders need to evaluate their performance through that lens. Leading well when things go wrong requires the self-awareness to recognize and regulate immediate responses. It also requires the ability to think beyond oneself in those situations. 

In short, it requires a lot of emotional intelligence. 

Self-assessed high emotional intelligence is generally focused on behaviour during good times and those seen as lacking are those who don’t exhibit EI skills even when things are going well.  But that’s not the bar employees are measuring leaders against. 

Would you rather be right or be effective?

The choice here is to decide to be right, or to be effective. Yes, this may seem wildly unfair.  However, effective leaders need to exhibit the same behaviour towards their employees regardless of the latest fire they need to put out.  

It takes time and effort to build the EI and resilience that enables leaders to authentically respond in way their employees will remember as positive. But there is no greater investment to be made in leadership.

Your brand is more fragile than you think. Don’t let it be defined by your “temporary lapses”.



Originally published on LinkedIn August 30, 2017 by Linda Hills.

Linda Hills is the Director, Learning and Leadership Development at University of Toronto.