The top 4 pitfalls most organizations make around people leadership (and how to avoid them)

I had a work experience with a boss that I loved. I was given exciting project opportunities, felt empowered, and I was taking on work that I had never done before. I really enjoyed my work because my boss believed in my capabilities and supported my ideas. I stayed with the company much longer than I had originally planned because of my leader and work that fueled me.

Then, my boss changed. Within a year, 60 percent of my peers had left the company and I was looking to do the same. I realized that who I’m reporting to plays a vital role in my work satisfaction and engagement. 

I know I’m not the only one with this experience.

In early 2022, CNBC shared an MIT Sloan Management Review analysis of Glassdoor reviews from prior years, including 172 metrics at more than 600 companies. The analysis found that toxic work culture is the overwhelming factor that leads to people leaving their jobs. 

The definition of toxic work culture was broad. It included the company’s failure to advance DEI&B work, people feeling disrespected at work, the organization lacking integrity, abusive managers, and a cutthroat work environment. What’s the common denominator in all of this? Leadership, or lack thereof.

Pew Research released a report in March of 2022 that found the second most common reason people leave their jobs, behind compensation, was due to feeling disrespected at work. The third reason is lack of development and career opportunities. Again, this is a result of poor leadership.

Let’s explore the four reasons most organizations have a leadership gap.

  1.  We promote people into leadership for the wrong reasons

People tend to be promoted into a people leadership position based on their strong performance as an individual, but they often lack the people skills and effective management tools to inspire and motivate a team. There are two completely different skillsets at play between delivering results as an individual and delivering results through others.

The National Bureau of Economic Research studied sales organizations at 214 firms, and they discovered that the promotion to manager was seen as a reward for the top individual salesperson. People leadership was being used as an incentive or reward for individual performance versus being considered a role requiring specific skills. This practice is common across many industries and functions. We all know that being the best, most talented, and high-achieving software developer, salesperson, architect or (fill in the blank) does not mean they will also know how to develop and inspire others. It doesn’t mean they have the skills to cultivate a high-performing team of individuals who potentially think, work, and are motivated differently. 

  •  Lack of training, development, and support

While we may not promote people with the right skills into leadership, we can support them in building their people leadership skills. 

This rarely happens, even though 85 percent of career success is determined by strong people and power skills (aka soft skills) over technical skills. 

In fact, 59 percent of people leading one or two employees report having received no training.  Fifty percent of managers with 10 years or more of experience report having had only nine hours of people leadership training. 

People are promoted into a people leadership role without the skills and no support in developing their skills. So, people create their own model of what they think people leadership looks like. They had a previous leader they liked, so they try to replicate what that leader did, even though they don’t fully understand the how or why. Perhaps they had a leader that they considered toxic, so they work to avoid doing what he/she did. We have a bulk of our leaders walking around with their own, self-conceived patchwork of ideas of what people leadership looks like. Even pre-pandemic, we knew this wasn’t working.

Then, the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic happened. Leaders who had made up their own model of what leadership looked like suddenly needed to lead people remotely. Most did not have a model for what that looked like. Their bosses couldn’t help them because their skills were undeveloped and they didn’t know how to lead remotely, either.

  •  Ineffective people leadership training and development.

For the lucky few who get training and development support, it’s still limiting. The support comes late in their people leadership journey, it doesn’t work with how our brains work, and it doesn’t flow into how we work. Basically, much of our people leadership training and development is ineffective.

The bulk of leadership development spend is concentrated at the upper management levels of a company. By then, people have already developed and entrenched bad leadership habits. Also, these are not the individuals who directly impact the greatest number of people within an organization. Companies need to invert spend to focus on people leadership development for frontline supervisors and middle management. Let’s help people develop strong leadership skills from the start….and save their team members from the bumps-and-bruises of the current trial-and-error reality. 

Most leadership training is not designed to work with how our brains function. Our brains can only absorb so much information at once. Fifteen to thirty minutes is optimal for retention. Spacing out content to allow for absorption has also proven to be more effective.

I worked at a company that sent new managers away to a day-and-a-half day workshop. Sounds great, right? The new mangers would come back with eyes glazed, could hardly tell you more than one or two things they learned, and would not be able to utilize most of the information when they needed it months later into their role. This blitz of information is how most development happens. 

Lastly, a lot of people leadership training isn’t set up to go with the flow of how people work.  Some are designed solely for in-person, which does not support today’s hybrid and remote work realities. Online training may be housed in a learning management system that few people access. If online training is offered, most are not mobile enabled to allow people to learn on the device, at the time, and in the location of their choice. Few training programs deliver notifications in the way people conduct their work, via text, Teams, Slack, or other platforms. Many of our leadership programs need to be revisited to fit into the flow of work.    

  •  Companies do not reward great people leadership. 

Consider the last time you saw an announcement of someone being promoted into an executive leadership role. Did the announcement highlight strong people leadership as one of the reasons they were being promoted? When I asked this question to a roomful of CEOs, only two people raised their hands.

On a more day-to-day basis, people leaders often have a full plate of their own work they are expected to accomplish. Workload capacity is seldom calculated to include the time to lead and support the development of their team. Performance expectations for leaders and their teams are often being maintained, even as teams are not fully staffed and experiencing ongoing churn. All of this sends a strong message to people leaders about where priorities lie for a company. 

Many of you reading this might suggest that prioritizing your team’s development will produce the results for which people leaders are accountable. I agree with you. But, if you are an untrained manager with a boss who also lacks training and doesn’t necessarily have time themselves to guide you toward this more sustainable and effective approach to leadership, how would you know that to be true? 

Here is what I know to be true; Awesome people leaders are the most effective, overlooked solution to employee retention and engagement. 

Awesome people leaders cultivate high-performing teams to deliver greater innovation and improved business results. They create work experiences that allow people to grow and thrive. They are the make-it-or-break-it for company culture and values.

So enough of the status quo. It is time to re-think who we promote into people leadership and why, how we set our leaders up to be successful, our approach to training and development that meets people where they are cognitively and in the flow of their work, and how we reward them. 

About Heather Polivka 2 Articles
Heather Polivka is a trusted business advisor accelerating the growth and success of businesses and their leaders through practical leadership, employee performance, and thriving workplace cultures. Heather recently launched a new online, mobile-enabled manager training program, Awesome People Leaders (APL), to address the prevalent gap in training and development for first-time and middle managers. APL provides a series of micro-learnings and actions for real-world management scenarios to cultivate high-performance team building, and an online private community to collaborate, share, receive feedback, and learn from others’ experiences. Learn more about Awesome People Leaders (APL): Learn more about Heather at:

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