Helping New Managers Avoid the Seven Most Common Management Mistakes

Helping New Managers Avoid the Seven Most Common Management Mistakes

Dr. Lois Frankel Dr. Lois Frankel
16 minute read

“I’d rather stick a needle through my eye than be a manager,” lamented one very discouraged manager recently. “I had plenty of confidence when I was doing what I knew how to do. Now I doubt myself and my abilities.” This graphic comment echoes a theme familiar to new managers, experienced managers without formal training, and managers of growing companies and departments. Companies of all sizes around the globe take technically proficient performers and anoint them managers without providing them concomitant development to assure success. Untrained managers cost company’s significant amounts of money in terms of lawsuits, EEO charges, the low productivity that accompanies poor morale, and even attempts at unionization by making the most common management mistakes. 

Through no fault of their own, most new managers often make one of seven common management mistakes that lead to untold nightmares. With some very simple changes and one giant leap of faith, managing can be made easier. 

To illustrate, follow Jason, a top-notch engineer, through his first six months as a new manager. He provides a real-life example of someone who made every mistake in the “new manager book” because he did not know any better. Jason learned the hard way, making the seven most common management mistakes and discovering ways to remedy them. 

Mistake 1: Tight-fisted control 

Among the most common management mistakes made by the novice manager is overcontrol. In an effort to prove himself worthy of his new assignment, Jason attempted to maintain control of everything and everyone around him. Initially, his reputation as a talented engineer with strong detail orientation, boundless energy, and superior interpersonal skills cut him a berth with his staff. They tolerated his constant questioning, second-guessing their decisions, and directing their most minute tasks-at least for a short while. Within months, however, Jason was perceived as more of an impediment to goal attainment than a help. He had everything going for him, and he let it slip through his fingers because of one common error: the need to maintain control. 

Remedy: To be in control, give it away 

Remember the paradox of control - the more control you have, the more you give away. Savvy managers know that in order to bring out the best in people, power and control must be shared.  

Giving up trying to look good does not mean relinquishing responsibility. Managers are always responsible for what happens in their department. It means that they assess the capabilities of team members, both individually and collectively, and give them as much control over the process as they are prepared to handle. For example, Jason could have told the high-performing veterans that he trusted their abilities, and, until he was familiar with what they were doing and how they were doing it, let them perform their duties. In this way, he would have to be aware of what was going on and available to help, but not directing the processes of people who were quite capable of doing that themselves  

With staff members who were not performing to their maximum potential, Jason might have talked to each of them about the areas in which they felt comfortable operating independently and in which ones they perceived the need for his input. Without being overly controlling, Jason could remain involved with those areas that required his expertise and allow independent functioning on others. He needed to differentiate who and what areas required his input from those that did not. 

Mistake 2: Expertizing

Within the first several weeks of his tenure as manager, the division vice president to whom Jason reported asked him to develop a plan for restructuring the department so that client requests from various geographic locations could be more efficiently handled by the team. Jason believed that because he was the one recently promoted to manager, he must know what is best for the department. He did not see the need to consult with his team members who would be affected by the changes. After all, he was hired as the expert. Instead, he developed a plan independently and presented it as a fait accompli to the team. 

Needless to say, Jason’s plan went over like a lead balloon. Team members tried to point out where the plan would not practically solve the problem, but Jason would not listen. He reverted to his over-controlling style and insisted that the team accept his initiative. What he got in return was submissive compliance. It was not their plan, they had no ownership in it, and therefore had little interest in assuring its success. 

Remedy: Trust the team’s expertise 

Managers are not hired because they are experts at everything. This is a common misconception that only creates more pressure than necessary. Managers are hired because they can get the job done through others.   

The fear that most new managers have is that if they open up a problem to the team, they may be opening up a can of worms. What if the team fails to produce an acceptable solution? What if they propose something that is far off base? Typically, this fear is unfounded, provided the manager clearly outlines the parameters. In short, a manager should describe the playing field and the boundaries for the team of players and allow them to “run with the ball”. 

Mistake 3. Failure to build a team 

After three months, Jason had called only one staff meeting—and that was within the first two weeks of his promotion. Not only did he not see the reason for one, but he was also not sure he wanted everyone getting together. He was afraid they would use the time to gang up against him. He could feel the tension in the department, and he did not want to fuel it. He thought it would be better to deal with each team member one-on-one. As a result, the team spirit that existed prior to his arrival was now practically nonexistent—except for when they gathered to complain about Jason. His plan was having the opposite effect of what he wanted. 

Although Jason was on target about the importance of one-on-one meetings in helping managers to get to know individual team members, it is equally important for managers to build a high-performance team. He committed yet another of the most common management mistakes. 

Remedy: Schedule team meetings and encourage participation 

Team meetings should be looked on as an opportunity to exchange ideas, assist one another with current problems, and inform members about significant company and departmental events that affect their work.  

From the outset make it clear that the meetings are sacrosanct, and not designed for “show and tell”/bragging (which often does more to damage camaraderie than help it). Rather, use those as opportunities for team awareness and group problem-solving.  Consider the frequency as well – whether weekly meetings are too frequent, leading participants to struggle to come up with topics that are of true business value and impact to others.  

Establish a formal agenda with each meeting covering regular topics such as a report on what is happening in the company that affects the department’s efforts, a brief review of the status of major projects and concomitant problems or successes, and an assessment of how the team itself is doing (process observations). Instead of individual reporting on individual activities for the week, leverage a project status sheet that provides a quick update with time devoted to unusual obstacles and recognition of achievements only. With this, a review of others’ progress can be reviewed at a glance.

Mistake 4. Unclear boundaries 

Jason worked for a company that embraced the concept of homegrown promotions. They believe that good performance should be rewarded with promotional opportunities rather than going outside to fill management positions. It is a great philosophy, but absent training or at least discussions with the new manager that help to provide a transition to the next level, it can create problems, as it did for Jason. In his case, he had difficulty establishing a new set of boundaries that distinguished “Jason the coworker” from “Jason the boss.” 

On the one hand, he had an inclination toward over-control and expertizing, and on the other he spent a great deal of time trying to be “one of the guys.” To let people know he was still one of them, he would commiserate with them about management and share inappropriate information about his relationship with his girlfriend. This sent mixed messages to his staff about the true nature of his position and responsibilities. People did not know from moment to moment whether he was going to pull rank or behave as a peer. As a result, their trust in him dwindled down to a practically nonexistent level. 

Remedy: Understand new role and align with new peer group 

Making the transition from peer to manager means remaining friendly with staff members but realizing that the new scope of responsibilities requires a different skill set in building those relationships. The mistake many new managers make is to expect the relationships to remain the same, when in fact they cannot. One must be supportive, objective, and available, but to expect the same of former peers simply is not realistic. The new manager is now someone who directs their work, evaluates their performance, and in other similar ways has a tremendous effect on their professional and personal lives.  

The true peers are now other supervisors and managers at the same level within the organization. This may at first be difficult because, in some cases, those people may have managed the new manager. Time must now be spent building peer relationships with new colleagues. Although listening to and addressing staff concerns about management, the team, or even personal issues, one’s own views should be shared only with your peers, not the staff.

Mistake 5. Lack of vision 

Most managers experience a honeymoon period during which manager and staff get to know one another, learn about each other’s work styles, and, in general, cut each other a bit of slack. Eventually, however, the staff expects leadership in the form of vision and direction. Without this, teams feel like they are marching in place and become demoralized with doing the same old things in the same old way. Like many new managers, Jason failed to work with his team to establish a vision. 

Vision is what transforms groups from doing things routinely to seeing the possibilities in situations and cashing in on them for the benefit of the organization. In his book, A Force for Change, Harvard professor John Kotter defines a “vision” as being “specific enough to encourage initiative and to remain relevant under a variety of conditions.”  

Remedy: Establish a joint vision 

A manager should use staff meetings to talk about the importance and value of having a vision and to work with subordinates to develop one for the department. Not only can this be a good joint project to pull the team together by aligning toward common goals, but it can also be the ideal use for staff meetings. By asking these three questions the new manager helps the team develop a vision:

1) How do we add value to this organization? 

2) How do we want to be perceived by others? 

3) How do we want to personally benefit from our vision? 

An example is this one developed by a team of corporate attorneys: “To develop a broad base of personal and professional skills that enable us to provide superior legal counsel to our clients that protects the company from unwarranted lawsuits and helps to create a working environment where creativity, job satisfaction, and productivity intertwine and flourish”. 

This vision, then, becomes the standard against which team members measure their own actions and the department measures its effectiveness. 

Mistake 6. Resistance to feedback 

When it became clear that the way he was doing things was not working, Jason refused to listen to the direct and subtle feedback he was receiving from staff and colleagues. Rather than recognize that he may be contributing to some of the department’s problems, whenever he received any negative feedback, he engaged even more in controlling and expertizing, which only exacerbated the problem. It became a catch-22 for him. 

It is not uncommon for managers to rely on the same skill set that worked for them in the past when they were individual contributors. Even in the face of evidence to the contrary, they believe that “turning up the volume” on old behaviors, rather than acquiring new skills, is the answer to their problems. Jason was oblivious to the fact that his team was giving him feedback through their stony silence at meetings and failure to initiate new and necessary projects. When team members tried to talk to him about what may be going wrong, he wrote them off as malcontents. Jason failed to understand that the new position requires new and different behaviors. 

Remedy: Solicit and respond to feedback

Without even asking for it, people are giving feedback all the time. Through their body language, tone of voice, and other behaviors, they communicate what they are thinking. Good managers look for the nonverbal as well as verbal clues given them by team members. Consider what might have happened had Jason called everyone together and asked, “I feel a certain tension in the department. I’d like us to talk openly about it. Is there anything going on that I should know about?” and then waited until someone answers (and someone who cannot stand silence inevitably does). 

The caveat here is to listen openly to what is said next. All too often managers get into a spitting match by arguing with what they hear, which only confirms the fact that no one should speak up. They explain and defend their behavior rather than look at the feedback as an opportunity to grow. When caught off guard, or made to feel defensive, good managers revert to using simple listening techniques to probe into how people feel, why they feel that way, and what suggestions others may have for improving the situation. 

Mistake 7. Blind adherence to rules 

Rules and policies are important in establishing order in most organizations. The seasoned manager, however, knows that the rules must serve both the organization and the staff member to be truly effective. Otherwise, people spend inordinate amounts of time figuring out ways to get around the rules. Jason viewed his management role as enforcer of the rules, rather than more broadly as interpreter of them. 

There was a man on Jason’s staff whose longtime companion died. The man had used up all his vacation and personal time caring for his partner. He asked Jason for one day more than the allotted three days of bereavement time so that he could attend to all of the arrangements for the funeral. Pointing to the policy manual, Jason informed the man that the rule was three days and no more. The man, normally an above average performer, wound up taking the additional day without pay and returned to work as someone who “worked to rule”—did what was asked of him and nothing more. Jason received back from the employee what he gave him: conformity. 

Remedy: Be a creative problem solver 

When it comes to managing people, what you give is what you get. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you.” The new manager can buy a lot of goodwill, with not only an affected employee but with his other staff members as well by showing compassion and using creativity to solve a personal problem. He could have begun by going to his human resources manager and asking if there were any exceptions to the rule. If not, he could have recommended allowing the man to borrow from next year’s vacation. Another idea might have been to allow the man to make up the time at some point in the future by working a Saturday or overtime. 

Of course, one needs to keep labor laws, consistency of application, and perceptions among coworkers in mind. Weighing the real risks of making a decision like this one against the human factors involved must be taken into account. But the manager who goes the extra mile for each of his or her staff members (not just a select few) by exhibiting a willingness to take a calculated risk when appropriate is rewarded with loyalty and productivity that money cannot buy.

Guiding managers to avoid the seven common mistakes

Helping Managers avoid the seven management mistakes described above can be handled in onboarding process, during new manager assimilation activities and/or regular coaching sessions.  Provide guidance to have them reassess their beliefs about the role of a manager and learning as much as they can about managing through management training programs, books, and mentors. When problems arise with a team or individual players, always assist them by guiding them to first ask themselves the question, “What am I doing that contributes to this problem?” Only after that question has been answered should they begin searching elsewhere for causes and solutions. Providing insights to them that lead to self-introspection about their role (what they can control) in team relationships can only support their growth as effective and successful leaders of people.  In the end, ‘less’ inevitably proves to be ‘more’ when it comes to managing. 

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