There’s an old adage, “It is better to be trusted than to be loved.” The wisdom in this statement is obvious.

When the chips are down and a critical decision is staring a group in the face, people want a leader who is trustworthy and reliable far more than they want someone who is just popular or well liked. In a perfect world, leaders would be both trusted and loved, but unfortunately that’s not always the case.

The Warning

Consider yourself warned: beware of the popular, but unproductive leader.

Every organization has them. They’re charismatic, engaging, and enjoyable to be around. For a time, people love working with, for, and around them.

But it won’t last.

Driven employees will grow frustrated and disengage, while employees content with mediocrity will continue to support the unproductive leader. This will ultimately drag down the entire organization.

Impact on A-players

More than ever before, employees want to know that their work is valuable and impactful. They’re most engaged when they can see the connection between their contributions and the company’s business outcomes. The vast majority of employees want feedback. They want to improve. They want training and development. They want someone they can trust to lead them.

While likeable, these unproductive leaders will ultimately do more damage than good. Ineffective leaders don’t consistently contribute to positive business outcomes or help their teams contribute either. They often don’t even bother to develop the employees that they manage. Ultimately, their popularity among driven employees will fade, leading to disengagement and declining morale.

Impact on Mediocre Employees

On the flip side, there are employees that don’t want feedback. They don’t push themselves and don’t want others to drive them to become better either. They are content with mediocrity.

Among this subset of employees, unproductive leaders may remain popular, but for all the wrong reasons. These employees are already unmotivated. Not only do they and their leader hinder the progress of the organization, but they also drag others down with them creating a vicious cycle of disengagement.

Which is precisely why popular, but unproductive leaders can be so damaging. They either demotivate the driven or enable the unmotivated. Neither is a desirable result.


One of the most important reasons that organizations collect 360-degree employee feedback and conduct employee engagement surveys is to provide transparency. Transparency shines a light on both people and processes, helping individuals make the right decisions.

Being right is rarely more important than when it comes to hiring, promoting, and developing leaders. Gathering 360-degree employee feedback helps managers gain insight into how employees and peers feel about those in leadership positions. Employee engagement surveys can measure the pulse of an entire organization and give insight into how satisfied employees are with their jobs, their teams, training and development and opportunities for career advancement.

Combining this data with business outputs provides the transparency necessary to identify those popular, yet unproductive leaders. This information is invaluable to correcting a leadership gap before it becomes a problem – whether that means providing better training for the ineffective leader or finding someone new to fill the role.

An organization’s most important asset is its people. Identifying popular, but unproductive leaders will help organizations move forward and keep their employees both productive and engaged.