The #1 Way To Alienate Your Hard-Working Team

We’ve all been there — your accomplishment, which you’ve spent months on, gets credited publicly to your superior. She just smiles and nods, taking all the credit and seeming to forget that she has a team behind her.

And then the moment a criticism is levied, the same leader immediately turns it toward her team, skirting any responsibility.


Photo from

Having this reversed perspective on praise and criticism is the #1 way to undermine your credibility, destroy morale, and drive your team to start updating their resumes. After all, we know that people don’t leave jobs — they leave their boss.

Here’s the simple two-part rule for not being that kind of leader.

1) Be a window for praise.

When someone praises you or your organization for something, let it pass right through you and shine on your team. We’ve talked about it before — it is not all about you. So find an opening to give credit to your team in accepting the praise.

You could say:

  • “Thank you, we have a team of very hard-working, talented people that made it possible,” or
  • “It was truly a group effort, and we’re lucky to have the group of leaders that can accomplish something like this,” or, if appropriate,
  • “Thank you, but it’s actually Betsy who deserves all the credit, supported by the rest of our team. They worked for months to make this truly shine.”

Obviously, you shouldn’t take this too far and credit people who didn’t have anything to do with the project.

But whenever possible and appropriate, try to divert the compliment from yourself onto others. In most cases, the person paying the compliment will realize what you’re doing and think more of you for doing it, and your team will be impressed and thankful that you’re casting them in the best possible light.

2) Be a sponge for criticism.

No one can make everyone happy all the time. People make mistakes.

So when criticism comes your way, soak it up like a sponge. This is not the time to let the feedback pass through you onto other people. Never throw a member of your team under the bus by blaming them, especially in their absence. Ultimately, everything that happens in your organization is your responsibility. Even if you didn’t do it or even know that it happened, you are the point person — the face of the organization — and your first step must be to accept responsibility.

Trust me: blaming someone else — especially a subordinate — won’t protect your image. Instead, it will just make you look like the kind of person no one would want to work for.

You could say:

  • “You’re right. We didn’t do the right thing in this case, and please know that we’ll figure out how we can change it in the future,” or
  • “Thank you for your feedback. I accept full responsibility for the issue, and I can assure you that we are already at work figuring how to make it right,” or
  • “Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It will take some time to figure out where things went off track, but please know I take personal responsibility for anything that happens in our organization. I want you to know how much I appreciate you taking the time to let me know how you feel.”

Notice that none of those suggestions hint at where the blame should actually be pointed. And they definitely don’t join in the criticism; have you ever heard a leader say something like, “I’m sorry, we’ve been having so much trouble with our marketing team and this is just another example.” I have, and I’ve watched eyes roll among their team. Even if a given staff member isn’t the one being targeted this time, she is left to assume that you’d stab her in the back next time around.

Final Thoughts

So remember — to keep from alienating your team, be a window for praise and a sponge for criticism. It will bolster your reputation as a trustworthy leader, and it might just keep your team’s resumes safely tucked away.

Question: How did you feel when your superior took credit for something you did? Or sidestepped responsibility when criticism landed? Please leave a comment, and please share this content on social media using the convenient buttons below!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 thoughts on “The #1 Way To Alienate Your Hard-Working Team

  1. I completely agree. I’ve worked with some leaders, however, where I noticed that when they take ownership of the team idea, then idea was much more likely to get implemented. When I noticed they were distiancing themselves from the team idea–even being a window of praise for the team–then it was an early signal that it probably wasn’t going to happen. You just got to know the MO and patterns of the people with whom you’re working.

    • So true, Phillip. Maybe the leader’s lack of commitment to the idea was a signal that he/she thought it would fail, so the leader can later say, “It wasn’t my idea.” Thanks for commenting!

  2. Very thoughtful. The mark of a real leader is accepting the fact that the buck needs to stop on their desk. Make the changes or brain storming with staff after the fact . . . especially when you have time to think it through!

  3. When being a “window for praise,” I have found it is also important to be specific, and when being a “sponge for criticism” to be vague. Compliments to the team are remembered far longer and have greater effect when they are more than just a generic “good job” or “hard work.” By mentioning a specific action I am not only showing that I am giving credit where it is due (the folks who did the work) but that I also *paid attention* to the actual process they went through. I have found that a specific remark is valued more to the people being praised, not only directly but when they hear of it from a third party. When accepting criticism, it is (of course!) more difficult. I try to acknowledge the complaint (and by extension, the complainer) as valid and accept the blame personally without slipping in extenuating circumstances or excuses. If something didn’t go right, my team usually knows it already – they don’t need to have someone else making them feel worse, so I am happy to shield them from that. I also find it interesting that often, taking the ‘hit’ for my team, the person critiquing will often backpedal (“well, I know how difficult it is to…”) and my team will step up to the plate (“we know x didn’t work, next time we will do it differently”).