Karin’s Leadership Articles

Unnecessary Roughness: What Happens When Leaders are Mean

by | Feb 20, 2013 | By Karin Hurt, Employee Engagement & Energy |

A side effect of being a leadership blogger is that people go out of their to tell me stories of “bad leadership.” Unfortunately bad leaders are everywhere, and show up in all kinds of organizations. Lately my readers and others have been sending me examples of what I call, “unnecessary roughness.”

“It was Superbowl Sunday, 5 minutes before kickoff, and our sales director calls a mandatory conference call to discuss lagging KPIs.
“My boss knows I go to church, but always calls me on Sunday mornings at 10 am, just to “check in.”
“Our entire scorecard is “green” with unprecedented results, but our ops review was brutal. No one smiled. They kept drilling us all about really trivial areas where we “weren’t doing well.” Not one mention of the positive results.”
“I was 5 minutes late for a meeting, because I was wrapping up a critical conversation with another senior leader. He went crazy in front of everyone. ”

I imagine you have heard similar examples of unnecessary roughness in your world.

Unnecessary roughness comes in many shapes and forms. When I hear these examples, I always ask the same question, “why do you think s/he acted that way.” The most comment response (after he’s a jerk or she’s just a witch) is “because it gets results.”

The Pros and Cons of Unnecessary Roughness

Unnecessary roughness…

  • Drives short-term results
  • Creates compliance
  • Scares people into working harder
  • Reinforces your position of authority
  • Keeps them on their toes
  • Will ensure you never hear bad news
  • Will make you feel powerful
  • ? What would you add?

Unnecessary roughness also…

  • Creates paralyzing stress
  • Stifles creativity
  • Will bury problems
  • Will translate to customers
  • Causes people to work on the politics more than the work
  • Increases absenteeism and attrition
  • Is contagious
  • Teaches your team that “mean” is okay
  • ? what would you add?

And so my first point don’t be that guy. Take a good look in the mirror to ensure you have no signs of unnecessary roughness.

But what if you’re dealing with that guy? I bring this to the Let’s Grow Leaders community for your ideas and suggestions (please comment). I’ll incorporate your suggestions into a future post.

How do you cope with unnecessary roughness?

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Mitch Mitchell

    I can honestly say that I personally never “really” had to deal with that, which is strange because I did work in a place where the person my supervisor and the other supervisors reported to was like that. However, for whatever reason she was always nice to me, as were other upper management types; I was never sure why. lol

    I added the “really” because my supervisor had this way about her that was… irritating. She was pretty straight forward, one of those types who told people she was only going to say it once and that they’d better remember it. Lucky for the people in my department, they had me as assistant supervisor, who handled all the backup training and answered most of the questions.

    Then one day she called me out in front of the entire office for something that I wasn’t responsible for. That was confirmed in another hour when she popped back and said “I found out it wasn’t you; oops”, very cavalier about it. I didn’t like it & decided to handle it with my own version of force.

    I went home & typed up a letter on my computer and printed 3 copies of it. I had some history on her, though she didn’t know I knew it. I went into the office the next morning and I asked to see her in the conference room. Once in there I handled her the letter & didn’t say a word. In the letter was a line saying I was going to put a copy of it in my employee file & ask to have one put in her file as well. That would have been a 3rd strike against her; I knew it. She asked me not to do that and we had a 90-minute talk. It was calm and directed, and we not only had a great understanding after that but here we are, almost 30 years later, and we’ve had a great relationship ever since. Also, she changed her overall office behavior towards everyone else.

    Sorry for the long story but you asked how we’d handle things; that’s how I handled it. And there was only that one incident involving me in 4 years; can you imagine what I might have done if I really thought she’d gone over the line? 🙂

    • letsgrowleaders

      Mitch, I am so glad that you shared your story. Wow. It sounds like your calling her on the carpet really worked. You were able to get her to hear you for 90 minutes…and then do something about it. That was a really bold and potentially risky move. I am curious, would you have actually distributed it?

      • Mitch Mitchell

        Absolutely. I thought about doing it anyway but after our talk I felt that things were going to be better, and I had the letter saved on my computer so I could have pulled it back out anytime. You never make a threat without being ready to go through with it.


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