How ignoring frustrations can lead to harmful leadership behaviours


Have you ever been so frustrated that you encourage the people around you to share in expressing your frustration? 

Here’s one from my shame file. You know that file where you store memories of when you could have been a better leader. 

A long time ago, I was leading a collection of work units and we would come together on a regular basis to have a branch meeting. At the meeting, we would work through issues that affected everybody and learn together. 

However, tardiness was becoming a big problem. Although the meeting started at 10 am, many people would wait until 10 am before they got organised, and left their desks, some went to the bathroom or got a coffee first, but they all definitely dawdled to the meeting room.  

When other people saw that the meeting was only starting at 10.15 am because of the disruptions, they decided to jump on the bandwagon and not arrive on time either. 

It only took a few meetings until about a third of the people arrived very late without a valid reason. 

It got to the point where I’d had it. We had talked about the importance of being on time, but they forgot by the time the next meeting came around. 

I got there on time; other people were there on time. Why couldn’t the rest make the effort and get there on time? 

So, being the highly aware leader I was, I got everyone in the room to clap those entering after 10.05 am so they knew we were waiting for them and were pleased they finally decided to join us.  

I’m not proud of having encouraged everyone to shame their colleagues publicly. It’s not something I would do again or recommend you do because it’s harder to repair the damage than prevent it. 

However, it is an example of how when we consistently ignore or suppress feelings of frustration they build up and explode. The impact of that explosion will vary, but it’s not usually good. In this case, people at work were shamed by an urge to act passive-aggressively.  

It’s like a festering wound that, when it finally bursts, infects a leader’s behaviour and spreads toxicity among the team. 

The frustration manifested as blaming, shaming, and belittling others to deflect attention from my feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction. Repeatedly giving in to similar urges can lead to a toxic work environment that affects team cohesion and well-being. 

This incident is in my leadership shame file because what happened did not align with my values.  

Dr Susan David, a renowned expert on emotional agility, reminds us to check whether “we [are] managing our own lives according to our own values and what is important to us, or are we simply being carried along by the tide?” 

Psychology and business professor Richard Boyatzis talks about how our brain responds to critical feedback as a threat and how the strong negative emotion produced by criticism impairs our ability to learn because it affects how we think, feel about and perceive situations. His research has found our ability to learn rests on our grasp of what we’re doing well, not on what we’re doing poorly or someone else’s sense of what we’re doing poorly.

So, how could the situation have been better handled? 

The obvious answer is to set clear boundaries, ensure people are aware of the consequences of breaking those boundaries and then hold people accountable when they do. 

Hard to do when you’ve already been ignored, and many people are causing the problem. 

A more creative approach would be to tap into people’s fear of missing out on something good.

Start the meeting on time and include a reward or engaging experience that late-comers miss out on.  

Think about what the people involved would value. Here are some ideas to get you started: 

  • Start a friendly competition with a fun reward or trophy the winner displays until the next meeting. 
  • Draw prizes at the start of the meeting e.g. a mentoring session with a respected leader, an early leave pass, being added to a corporate table at a breakfast or lunch event focused on professional development, book giveaway etc. 
  • Share sought-after insights or intel that people prefer to hear first-hand before the official meeting starts. 
  • Play an insightful or engaging short video but don’t share the link afterwards – ensure it’s an additional benefit rather than essential viewing. 

You might like to mix it up, so people are never sure what they’ll miss out on. Or find something that works and stick with it while it works. 

The aim is to incentivise punctuality! Because why make the effort to get there for the boring, routine bits? 

I’d love to hear your ideas about ways to encourage people to arrive on time.

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