The telltale signs your leaders are too tough

If your leaders are being too harsh, these telltale signs should be cause for concern, says Mark Murphy:

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Sep 22, 2023

An Olympian would never claim their years of training were a breeze.

A renowned writer won’t ever describe penning their masterpiece as a simple joyride.

And neither would most successful entrepreneurs suggest that every step of business growth was effortless.

All these people know that to achieve greatness, no matter the endeavor, one typically has to expend some blood, sweat, and tears.

These people are typically all pragmatists – people who want themselves (and often others around them) to always reach for greatness.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a leader who challenges their people in this way.

People with this leadership style have high standards, and they expect themselves, and their employees, to meet those standards.

These leaders are driven and often enjoy smashing through obstacles. Based on more than a million takers of the What’s Your Leadership Style? test, we know that 57% of senior executives with a pragmatist boss love their jobs.

Unfortunately, only 24% of individual contributors with a Pragmatist leader love their jobs.

Why? Well, even for the intrinsically ambitious and intensely driven, working for a pragmatist can often feel like apprenticing to a master artist.

For many though this style can also feel bit harsh and overwhelming.

If you’re unsure whether leaders at your company are pushing this style too far, here are three signs to watch for.

Warning sign #1

High employee turnover rates

 If a leader notices that their team or department has a significantly higher turnover rate compared to other teams or industry averages, it could be an indicator of an overly tough leadership style.

Employees may feel undervalued, overworked, or stressed, leading them to seek opportunities elsewhere (ostensibly where they’ll feel more appreciated and less pressured).

And of course, the costs of constantly hiring and onboarding new employees can significantly hurt the organization’s bottom line.

Warning sign #2

Lack of initiative and innovation from team members

Leaders who are too rigid or intense can stifle creativity and discourage team members from proposing new ideas or taking the initiative.

If employees are afraid to make mistakes or fear reprimands for stepping out of line, they might hew to their assigned tasks and avoid any form of innovation.

There are plenty of signs that this is already occurring. For example, in the study Managers Don’t Love Innovators, we discovered that 60% of employees believe that their company always or frequently prefers people who quietly follow directions.

And only 33% say that their organization always or frequently rewards people who take risks.

It’s not a stretch to think that this will ultimately hurt an organization’s growth and restrict its adaptability in a rapidly changing economy.

Warning sign #3

Lack of personal growth and development requests

A clear sign of a stifling environment is when employees stop asking for opportunities to grow or develop.

In a supportive environment, employees will seek out new challenges, training opportunities, or projects that help them grow professionally.

However, in an environment where they feel constantly criticized or under threat, employees will often curtail their growth plans for fear of exposing themselves to more criticism or even potential failure.

It’s therefore especially troubling that a recent study on career growth discovered that only 18% of employees are always excited by their career growth and progress, while only 23% of employees always think they have the kind of training opportunities to foster career growth and advancement.


There are plenty of signs that leaders are too tough, but the three mentioned above are especially easy to notice, and even track.

Are fewer employees enrolled in training this year?

Has your innovation pipeline slowed?

Is turnover trending upwards, or is employee engagement declining?

Any of these could indicate leaders pushing a bit too hard.

Of course, there will always be stars who want an extra challenge, and you don’t want to lose those employees by advocating milquetoast leadership.

The key is to watch for these signs and adopt different leadership approaches based on the unique needs of your various employee groups.

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