What is “Eggshell Leadership?” And What To Do About It

Eggshell leadership

Summary: When you have a leader with unpredictable moods, many employees feel their organization is like a roller coaster without a stop button. Here are some methods to reduce tension and exhaustion and create psychological safety.

Dear Dr. Sylvia,

Whenever I meet with my boss, I get a queasy feeling in my stomach.

My work is either not good enough or perfect on any given day.

When he compliments me, the day fills with happiness.

However, when I am told my work is not good enough, there are often emotional outbursts (his, not mine).

For example, if I miss a deadline by a day or two, he shakes his head, looks down, and says emphatically, “This is unacceptable.”

I cannot say anything. I look down and eventually respond, “I’m sorry; I hope I can do better next time.”

He does not want explanations. His mantra is “Say what you mean and do what you say.”

And yet, even if it is something terrible, like a variation of the Maui fire, he says, “Stop making excuses.”

I have been working twelve-hour days and wonder if I can ever please him.

I like the company and what we produce.

However, I don’t know how much longer I can stay here.

Please.., help!


Walking on eggshells

The eggshell walker cannot sustain this discomfort indefinitely.

Dear Eggshell Walker,

This is one of the most challenging personality types to contend with.

The reason?

There is no safety.

Harvard professor Amy Edmundson writes about psychological safety at work. This is vital for the health and well-being of all employees.

Often, with eggshell leaders, there are emotional outbursts. They can be loud and direct, as in “You screwed up,” with a look of judgment that could start an earthquake.

And, then, on the other hand, be kind and caring a few sentences later.

Eggshell leaders cause damage when they flip back and forth; you never know where you stand.

While verbal berating is primarily subtle, it is obvious. As in, “We gave it a chance to be the way you want; however, YOUR way is not working and causing us to lose money.

The sentence’s tone becomes challenging with the words “your way. It always” sounds much louder than the rest.

This is where JUBLA starts. You feel judged, blamed, and attacked. Not pretty.

Another way is by gaslighting. That means no inclusion in important decisions.

Nothing is said. The subtle message is, “You are not included because you are not doing a good job, or you would be with us on the important things.”

Other eggshell tactics are accusations, threats, intimidation, shame, mocking, invalidation, and yelling.

And yet, there are times when you worry about your work, and this same boss is supportive and empathetic.

You hear you are “brilliant” and “No one can do the job as effectively as you.”

Perhaps you take a breath and feel relief for a moment or two. Then, the attacks begin again.

Never knowing what to expect, employees of eggshell leaders become “hypervigilant” to prepare for whatever is next.

The biggest problem with eggshell leadership is that it diminishes what is core to all healthy relationships. That is trust.

Fear of eggshell leaders begins with fear of caretakers as a child.

Think of it this way.

In my book “Don’t Bring It To Work,” the persecutor pattern fits with eggshell leadership.

The persecutor (aka bully boss) creates a sense of dread.

Once that happens, you are constantly on the defensive.

Even when they applaud you, the wait is always for the other shoe to drop.

Eggshell leaders make you doubt yourself and start defending, explaining, and justifying your behavior.

In other words, going back to your childhood, if you grew up with your mother, father, or caregiver teaching you that to survive, you must learn to walk on eggshells, you know that no one is safe.”

When I ask people to see who from their past also made them feel like they were walking on eggshells, it is an “aha” moment.

For example:

  1. Salli remembered that even if she got all A’s and one B on her report card, her mother was more upset about the B than all the other good work she had accomplished.
  2. Timothy was always yelled out for being “too loud” or “too quiet” at home. No matter what, he felt destined to do everything the wrong way.
  3. Margie has a fun sense of humor that helps her stay grounded at work. However, she never knows how her boss will react, so she keeps her thoughts to herself, as she did as a child.

The feeling of being in a war zone is often expressed. Even more is the anxiety and the fear of humiliation in front of peers.

Persecutors and bully bosses can be helped to shift their communication style when aware of the eggshell dance they put their employees through.

You can learn how to transform this behavior in Don’t Bring It To Work. The persecutor, aka bully, can become a visionary leader.

In that way, you begin to see how tonality and word choice can build or diminish trust.

If you are an employee in an eggshell situation, you can learn to speak up and tell the truth about how you feel.

Truth is the route to building trust. Then, and only then, can there be psychological safety at work.

Psychological safety is foundational to collaboration and higher productivity in the workplace.

Let’s make eggshell leadership a thing of the past. It’s good for you; it’s good for me, and it’s good for the planet.

To your success,

Sylvia Lafair

PS. If you had eggshell parents and have become one out of pattern repetition, do yourself a favor and learn a more gentle way to help your kids develop. Start with the book “Invisible Stress (It’s NOT What YOU Think). What works at home will also be effective at work. Go for it!

Creative Energy Options

Sylvia Lafair

Creative Energy Options