We are noticing a disturbing trend in organizations causing employees to complain more, become less productive and even leave their jobs as a result of feeling neglected by their leaders. Exploring why this is happening exposed an interesting dichotomy in perception between the two groups. Leaders and managers reported they spend more time listening to employee complaints and feel they have never been more empathetic and supportive of employees. Those same employees reported that their issues remain unresolved, and they don’t feel their bosses listen to them. Rather than feeling supported, they feel neglected. So, what is actually going on?

The main reason we discovered for this dichotomy is leaders are increasingly permissive and indulgent of employees instead of effective at managing emotions, complaints, and performance. Permissive Leaders tend to focus more on emotions and making employees happy, becoming excessively empathetic and listening to employees complain without getting to the underlying issues that cause the emotions. They neglect to resolve their issues or dismantle unrealistic employee expectations, which are frequently at the root of a complaint. Permissive Leaders operate from a fixed belief that they are being a good leader because they make time to “act” supportive while failing to uncover the issue causing an increase in their employee’s distress. This wastes valuable time and misses the opportunity to build trust, coach and empower employees to resolve their issues.

Rescuing and caretaking employees…

Instead of attending to emerging issues and employee needs, leaders instead try to be helpful and rescue employees from their emotional state. They don’t always know the right questions to ask nor how to restate what an employee is saying to ensure clarity. Instead of getting to the issue, they focus on feelings and getting the employee back to a happy place. We regularly coach clients on how to ask questions to get to the issues because they didn’t think to ask or probe out of fear they might have done something wrong or they may have to do something uncomfortable themselves. Instead of empathizing, clarifying and getting to the actual issue, they jump in and rescue the employee. Rescuing is one of the key strategies of the Permissive Leader as it makes them feel good about themselves at the expense of the employee really being heard and the issue resolved.

Here’s an example of rescuing an employee by focusing on feelings, not the issue:

Employee: I am so overwhelmed. I have too much work and too many priorities. I don’t know why I am getting so much dumped on me when my peers aren’t.

Manager: I’m sorry you are so overwhelmed. Everyone is really busy. Let’s see what I can take off your plate so that your workload is more manageable.

While the employee might feel grateful for less work, the manager has neglected to explore what the employee needed. Did the employee actually have too much work? What was the issue that was causing the employee’s perception? Because the manager didn’t ask any questions or really empathize, they didn’t get to the underlying issue.

In the issue-focused approach, we train leaders and managers to understand what the employee needs and then resolve it.

Employee: I am so overwhelmed. I have too much work and too many priorities. I don’t know why I am getting so much dumped on me when my peers aren’t.

Manager: I hear you are feeling overwhelmed by your workload and priorities. Let’s have a look at what you have on your planner so we can see why you feel it isn’t manageable. Then we can have a look at work distribution across the team. If I have been assigning you more tasks, I will need to rectify this as I wasn’t aware of it.

Employee: Well, one of my coworkers was saying that she doesn’t have much work and was doing some online shopping while I was going crazy trying to get everything done. It made me mad that I am slammed and she is taking advantage.

Manager: I can understand why you would be upset by this. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I am going to spend some time reviewing workflow throughout the team and I will get back to you by the end of the day. In the meantime, let’s look at your priorities so that you can focus on completing them as I know how important it is to you to feel you are achieving your goals.

Notice this type of interaction is brief and to the point. The feelings are acknowledged but are not the focus of the conversation. The employee was not subject to any defensiveness by the leader, nor were they made to feel that they had to be rescued. The issue was identified and the manager committed to getting to the source and resolving it in a reasonable time frame. This same employee would be encouraged to bring issues to this manager in the future, as trust was built in this transactional interaction.

Neglecting to deal with issues is a skill deficiency

Because leaders don’t tend to see a skill deficiency in themselves and don’t perceive themselves as needing to nurture their own development, their behaviour contributes to a dysfunction of neglect within the organization. When leaders neglect complaints and issues of their employees because they don’t have the required skills, the following symptoms emerge:

  • Complaining & negativity
  • Lack of engagement & innovation
  • Reduced productivity
  • Passive-aggressive behaviour, resistance, opposition 
  • Ongoing conflicts, recurring issues
  • Employee silos, excessive competitiveness, and lack of collaboration
  • Fear, blaming and adaptive behaviour 
  • Increasing absenteeism, presenteeism, stress leave or turnover 

What to do…

The effective use of leadership skills and behavioural competencies allows leaders to modulate their leadership style, which allows for increased issue identification and resolution skills and employee engagement. We know that self-aware leaders are more likely to have insight into how to motivate and influence the behaviour of their employees. A lack of emotional self-awareness and overall emotional intelligence lies at the root of neglecting oneself and others. To eliminate the issues created by neglecting development, leaders need to look to themselves as contributing to employee dissatisfaction. They must build emotional intelligence, actually listen to the needs of employees, identify issues and resolve them; and learn different leadership skills and approaches to keep employees engaged. Building emotional intelligence and learning the approaches that we outline in our book “So, You Think You Can Lead?” shows leaders how to embody effective leadership habits by breaking free from the automatic habits of the results-driven mindset that cause neglect.



Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations.  They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.

As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

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