How Workaholic Leaders Are Bad for the Whole Team

Suzan Bond
Jul 10, 2020 · 8 min read

The transition from manager to leader comes with a steep learning curve. Throughout the early part of our career, many of us found success by working harder, working more hours. This strategy breaks down in leadership roles.

The pressure leaders feel can be sky high. Most work long hours, especially during intense times. Whereas a scaling leader can use bursts of intense work to fuel the team forward, it becomes a way of life for a workaholic. Rather than having a multiplying effects, this behavior often brings diminishing returns for the whole team.

The harder a workaholic leader works the further behind they get. The way out isn’t more hours, it’s learning how to multiply their impact. As a leader what you personally deliver matters less than what the team delivers. Focusing on what you personally deliver is a big reason many fail in their first role as a leader. This is worrying as failing leaders exact a huge cost on the whole team.

Not all leaders are workaholics. There are plenty who have learned how to balance the demands of the role without falling into unhealthy work habits. So how can you sort out the workaholics from the leaders riding a burst?

Characteristics of workaholic leaders:

  • See own effort as biggest lever for team success
  • Focus on hours worked rather than results
  • Can expect others to match their pace
  • Consistently prioritize work over the personal
  • Struggle to say no or prioritize
  • Constantly feel overwhelmed

The cost of workaholic leaders

Work can become so embedded in a work-addicted leader’s life they fail to notice until it becomes more extreme. Scaling startup Away made headlines in late 2019. While it was a story about a toxic culture, it’s also a story of how the team suffers under a workaholic boss. Too often these kinds of leaders fail to see the devastating impact their over-the-top behavior has on others, even those who are well-meaning. Workaholic leaders can be a net-negative for the team. Here are four ways workaholic leaders can hurt the team.

Leaders who see themselves as the biggest lever for success tend to take on too much, and are more susceptible to becoming workaholic. There comes a point when there’s no more harder to work. They simply can’t do more. Their response time slows. As they take on more and more, they become a roadblock, the team stuck waiting for input on critical decisions. As you can imagine, delegation is a real problem.

The team becomes dysfunctional as they try to navigate organizational blockages. Other departments devise strategies to get around the workaholic leader; this is how leaders lose influence. Over time a workaholic leader might not be seen as a key player even in their own area. Implicit power structures develop in parallel, decisions made outside the stated power structure. The entire department suffers from loss of organizational influence. Morale plummets, the exodus begins, the best leaving first. The impact a workaholic leader on the team cannot be underestimated.

Action Steps

Leaders who become force multipliers delegate, focus on building bench strength of the team and making each member of the team a multiplier. Shifting from workaholic to team developer is the fastest way to become the force multiplier the CEO hired.

To lead others well, ego must be set aside. Being a workaholic can make you self-absorbed, even if the reason you work hard is for others. Self absorption is a warning sign when leading others. Some clues: care too much how others perceive you, trouble trusting others or letting go of control. Rather than take on the bulk of the work yourself, delegate as much as possible. Find opportunities to build the bench strength on the team. Look for places where you’re a single point of failure, reduce these and develop backup systems. If you find these difficult, hire a coach to help you uncover and shift mindsets.

Workaholic leaders often find setting priorities and saying no particularly difficult. When a new project arises they simply add it to their plate, the workload piles higher. Overwhelm can set in. Worse, leaders who can’t set boundaries create a team who also struggle with it. When you don’t set boundaries for yourself you teach your employees not to do that either. Even if you encourage them to set boundaries they’ll look at your actions, won’t trust that you mean it.

This results in a team who struggle to set boundaries, taking on too much work. This can work, for a while. The team matches the leader’s work intensity. Deadlines are missed, deliverables are of lower quality, the pressure increases. Eventually health suffers until you have a team that’s quite literally sick. When I tweeted about writing this article many shared their stories. This one shows how workaholic leaders can set a dangerous precedent.

The company has a policy of staying home when sick. Despite this, the leadership team was well known for working while sick even when the pandemic started. After the office closed and team members became sick, one by one they followed the leader’s example and kept working. When this team member got sick he followed suit. “As an employee following the example set by the leadership team, I was one of these people who decided to work while sick. Terrified for my health but more so for my job, I kept silent about having a fever for 8 weeks and kept working because that’s the expectation.” During a company-wide meeting, the CEO proudly boasted about how hard the the team was working hard and how few people took sick leave despite the pandemic. (Not surprisingly, many are now job hunting.)

Leaders are always setting an example, if when unintended.

Action Steps

Bosses who overwork encourage the team to do the same. Always remember that people watch your behavior and will follow it even when you explicitly tell them not to. Leaders who struggle to set priorities or say no should hire a coach to help them work through the underlying reasons.

While hard work is part of the scaling startup experience, becoming a workaholic doesn’t have to be. The strongest leaders know how to set priorities to focus. Narrowing of priorities allows them to keep a manageable pace even while working scaling the business.They’re not afraid to say no. Leaders who have found a balance know that time away only strengthens their work. They rarely work when sick. The whole team benefits.

Workaholic leaders often place a high value on work ethic, especially in working long hours or meeting goals at all costs. When long hours are centered, it can embed itself into the culture. The team believes they have to match the pace of their boss to be seen as productive or loyal, to get a promotion or a raise. Hard work can get you places, it just can’t get everyone to the same place.

The trick with overvaluing hard work is that it can hide an underlying assumption that success only requires hard work. When taken to the extreme, the culture can begin to look like a meritocracy, even when unintended. As leaders look for other hard workers, it can reinforce a similar to me bias. This makes it much easier to hire those who share the same characteristics as the leader, often leading to hidden bias especially around race, gender and sexuality. It’s also easier to overlook the contributions of those who might meet goals but are unable to put in long hours like parents, people caring for elderly parents, people with chronic illness, and others.

Those who value work ethic also tend to believe that if you work hard enough your work will be recognized. This is not true for all. When we embrace work ethic as a virtue we’re more liable to use it as justification for exclusion, even if we do it unconsciously. It influences who you hire, who you promote and how much you pay. The impact is whole scale, it cannot be underestimated.

Action Steps

Examine your notion of success. Look at ways to define goals and impact rather than face time or sheer number of hours. This will help you, and the team, know when you’ve done enough. Once set, make sure those OKRs are reasonable. Better yet, involve the team in the process to validate the assumptions.

When you do your next round of performance reviews, notice how often you mention working hard. Do you evaluate your folks, on hours or goals met? If you’re a scaling startup that doesn’t have formal reviews, work to create some structure immediately. Lack of structures make it easy to fall back onto looking at numbers of hours worked as a measure of success.

Leads are constantly pulled between organizational needs and those of the team. Add on a constantly changing business landscape where frequent challenges arise and you have a pressure pot. These conditions are ripe for workaholic tendencies. Workaholic leaders are often fueled by coffee and adrenaline, always switched on ready to jump to the next challenge. They’re also more likely to neglect their personal life in favor of the professional, pulling them dangerously out of balance.

The mode is all work, all the time.

Workaholic leaders eventually burn out. It’s not a matter of if but when. Burnout is bad for everyone, the impact multiplies when it’s a leader. As they flame out the stress becomes palpable, affecting the entire team. Overworked leaders tend to have just as high expectations for the team. People can only work at a relentless pace for so long, it’s simply not sustainable. The team can only keep up for so long until their personal lives, health and mental well-being suffer.

A workaholic leader under stress can create a domino effect on the rest of the team. A constantly overworked team can lead to burnout, low morale, dysfunction and eventually high numbers of departures from the company. Leaders on the verge of burnout can take the entire team with them.

Action Steps

Do you feel exhausted all the time? Is your personal life suffering? Is it hard to remember the last full day off you took? If you answer yes to any of these, there’s a good chance you’re on the edge of burnout. Your hard working ways are having a negative impact you on — and the rest of the team.

Though counter-intuitive, working less can make folks more productive especially when it comes to the kind of deep thinking needed in scaling startups. Slowing down can actually help the team be more productive and tap into deep thinking where creative ideas arise. Taking down time to rejuvenate will help you tap into deep thinking where creative ideas arise and give you the stamina needed on the intense journey rather than start a burnout domino.

(Note: Long hours aren’t the only reason for burnout, but that’s a different topic.)

Most leaders truly do want to create a positive working environment for their team. I know because that’s what senior leaders told me when I interviewed them. Having a positive rather than negative impact with the team is why many wanted more responsibility.

Even with strong beliefs and good intentions, it’s easy for pressure to take over and slip into bad habits that effect the whole team. The team will emulate the bosses behavior, even when unconscious. This can lead to unintended consequences. Leaders who know how to prioritize and find a healthy balance become force multipliers with far more reaching impact. When leaders let go of their workaholic behaviors they better not only themselves, but help the team too.

This is the second article in a two-part series about the impact of workaholic leaders. The first talks about why (some) leaders become workaholics.

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Suzan Bond

Written by

Leadership coach for new technology leaders. Fast Company contributor. Former COO Travis CI. Twitter: @suzanbond

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Suzan Bond

Written by

Leadership coach for new technology leaders. Fast Company contributor. Former COO Travis CI. Twitter: @suzanbond

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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