the 7 biggest mistakes managers make

Managers receive remarkably little training, given how important the role is to a team’s success and how many people managers impact daily. In fact, the vast majority of managers end up in their jobs because they were good at something else – communications or programming or operations or whatever they were doing before getting promoted into a management role. And once there, they’re often left to figure out for themselves what good management looks like, receiving little training or support from their companies.

So it’s not surprising that managers tend to make mistakes – and because of the nature of their roles, those mistakes tend to be high-impact. Here are seven of the most common mistakes I see managers making over and over again, and how they harm their teams.

Not giving feedback.

One of the most powerful tools managers have for getting results from their staff members is providing direct feedback about what people are doing well and what they should be doing differently. In fact, simply articulating the areas in which you’d like to see an employee improve or develop can go a surprisingly long way toward making that change happen.

But far too often, managers neglect to give regular feedback. Or they give it but flub the execution: They only give critical feedback without mentioning what people are doing well (or vice versa), or they sugarcoat what they say to the point that the message is missed, or they’re so vague that the employee isn’t left with anything useful that they can act upon.

As a result, employees don’t get alerted quickly when there are problems with their performance, don’t get the opportunity to develop professionally, bad habits become ingrained, and the team’s work suffers. Or, when it’s positive feedback that’s lacking, employees usually become demoralized and feel unappreciated – and the best will eventually leave for jobs where their contributions are valued.

Not setting clear expectations.

One of a manager’s most important responsibilities is to communicate clear, concrete goals so that everyone knows exactly what success will look like in their jobs. But too many managers neglect to communicate clear goals, instead forcing their staffs to guess (sometimes incorrectly) about the most important things for them to achieve, or allowing their teams to simply tread water or get pulled in too many directions.

A good test for managers is this: If you and your staff members were asked what the important things for them to achieve this year are, would your answers match? Often when I ask this question, it turns out that the answers don’t match up at all – which is a recipe for frustration on both sides.

Avoiding tough conversations.

Whether it’s rooted in fear of conflict, a desire to be liked, or simply not wanting to have awkward conversations, many managers avoid dealing with problems head-on. As a result, hard decisions don’t get made, staff members don’t hear about where they need to improve, and course corrections don’t get made when they should.

If you want to be a good manager, you’re going to have to have difficult and even awkward conversations; it comes with the territory. And ironically, while managers who shy away from these tough interactions often do it because they don’t want to rock the boat, over time the opposite will happen: As problems go unresolved and difficult decisions go unmade, staff members will grow frustrated and complain, and the best among them will leave if it goes on long enough.

When your job is to solve problems, you can’t value preserving harmony above all else.

Evaluating the wrong things.

Great managers keep the focus on results. They assess staff members’ performance based on what they’re actually achieving, rather than being overly influenced by whether someone schmoozes with big names over lunch or just keeps quietly to themselves.

Weaker managers often pay a lot of attention to the wrong things, like staff members’ social skills (even in jobs that don’t require outgoing personalities), or the face time they put in at the office, or what their academic pedigree is, rather than taking a clear-eyed look at what each person is achieving. As a result, they end up rewarding the wrong things, overlooking people who might be achieving at a high level, and driving away good employees who resent having their performance assessed by the wrong measures.

If you find yourself judging employees on how fun they are to talk to at your weekly check-ins or whether they embrace your weekly team-building exercises, that’s a flag that you’ve lost sight of what you’re there to achieve.

Not being clear when something is a directive, not a suggestion.

Managers who feel uncomfortable with their own authority often have a “tell”: They’ll present expectations as suggestions rather than directives. While a confident, direct manager might say, “Please show me a draft of the proposal before it’s finalized,” an insecure manager will often say something like, “Feel free to show me the proposal before you send it out” – leaving the employee with the mistaken impression that it’s optional and that the manager has no preference.

Unsurprisingly, this style tends to leave everyone frustrated. Employees end up confused about the manager’s expectations, and the manager ends up wondering why her “suggestions” aren’t acted upon. Worse still, this sometimes causes the manager to then swing too far in the other direction – becoming overly heavy-handed and starting to micromanage, rather than just being clear and direct from the start.

Not being willing to let low-performing employees go.

One of the biggest mistakes managers make is not addressing it when someone isn’t pulling their weight – and if you’ve ever worked somewhere where laziness or shoddy work was tolerated, you know how frustrating and demoralizing this can be. Good people want to work with other good people, and they want to know that their boss is discerning when it comes to results.

Firing people is one of the hardest things managers have to do, but it’s also one of the most important. If you’re serious about having a high-performing team, you’ll have to be willing to fire people. You can do everything else right—setting clear goals and expectations, delegating effectively, giving feedback, and so forth—but if you aren’t willing to let people go who aren’t performing in the way you need, you’ll never accomplish what you otherwise could.

Getting defensive.

If you’re ever worked with a manager who routinely got defensive when her decisions were questioned or when people shared dissenting viewpoints, you probably saw what happens next: Over time, people stop suggesting new and different ways of doing things or sharing alternative perspectives, which usually results in weaker decisions overall.

Ironically, while responding defensively when your decisions are questioned is generally an attempt to protect your authority, it will actually make you come across as less confident. After all, confident people are open to the possibility that they might be mistaken or that there might be a better way of doing something, because it doesn’t threaten them and they recognize thatsometimes other people’s ideas are better than their own. That’s a goodthing – that’s part of the value of having a team.

I originally published this at Daily Worth.

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. some1*

    Great list! Seriously, if you’d be too scared to tell someone they have B.O. or they need to stop staring at their coworkers; don’t accept a supervising position.

    I would add realizing you are always the boss first. For example, if you invite a report to coffee or start talking about your home improvement project, the report will feel like it’s mandatory to indulge you where they wouldn’t with a coworker.

    1. Jenn*

      Yes! This. I mean, yes, being a boss means having the larger office and bigger paycheck but it also means that sometimes you have to be the bad guy (gal) and tell someone they can’t take yet another day off during the busy time, or that they need to stop doing freelance work while at the office. I have worked with way too many managers who either don’t want to do this or they do it badly like “Well, the VP said that no one else can work from home anymore” – when it’s actually just that Jane can’t work from home because she’s abusing it and he doesn’t have the balls to tell her that to her face. Grrrr.

    2. Alex*

      Interesting points – can you expand a little on your second thought? Are you saying basically that managers shouldn’t try to connect on a personal/non-work related level with their direct reports because it makes a direct report feel obligated to participate, when they maybe would have declined if the roles were equal?

      1. some1*

        Yes, sorry, I didn’t explain myself well. I’ve seen new supervisors that didn’t seem to understand that you felt an obligation to laugh at their jokes or listen to their long, personal stories even if the obligation doesn’t exist, I always feel like it’s there.

        1. Worker Bee*

          I hear ya! Having a similar problem with my manager. She wants to be friends with everyone. I don’t want or need her as a friend. I want / need her to manage.

          1. Kate*

            When I was first promoted to be a manager, I felt like I was loosing friendly relationships with my former peers. It felt terrible, but true – you can’t really be friends with them anymore. So when offered manager’s role, take this into account.

            As soon as I accepted this change inside me, I started doing much better work. And relationships became better in turn, just in a different way.

            Manager’s role does not forbid personal chit-chats, but it means more listening then telling. It helps understanding your employees and managing them better

  2. Ali*

    My first boss when I got promoted used to be bad at feedback. He had good intentions by starting a formal review process, especially for someone like me who had a long adjustment period to the job, but he often focused too much on trivial areas and not enough on significant problems. Or he’d come off as too nitpicky, which just left me frustrated when I felt like he was pouncing on me every time the slightest mistake came through. He also avoided hard conversations or didn’t always know what to say to tough topics, as he basically dismissed a concern I had outright. He focused more on team-building games and forcing us to praise each other than he did dealing with problems.

    My new manager is a good guy and has good intentions as well, but he also knows how to just get down to business, not waste time on building morale (and we all get along well without games on conference calls; trust me) and can listen and address concerns in a way you feel like he’s actually taking what you say to heart. He used to be among our ranks and still works in the trenches, in a sense, but even with his increased responsibility, he’s still present and willing to explain things when asked.

    1. Kate*

      Being ready to explain is such a great thing! I used to have a manager who didn’t. It was terrible! Just giving exact tasks without really explaining why those are needed and without giving more detailed instructions on how to do them… I felt lost in and confused. Additionally, he was not approachable at all – I kept pinging him for weeks until I got the talk. Arrrgh

  3. Seal*

    The point about evaluating the wrong things really struck a nerve with me. I recently starting looking for a new job when I realized that being the consistently highest achiever in my organization and recognized as a national expert in my field meant nothing when it came to plum committee assignments and promotions. Why stay at a place where my work isn’t valued, let alone recognized?

  4. Suzanne*

    Great list, especially the first two. If you don’t give your employees clear guidelines and expectations and you don’t give them any kind of feedback, don’t be surprised if they wander about in a fog, frittering the days away. You don’t know what you don’t know, so you can’t do what you aren’t aware needs done.

  5. Rebecca*

    I’d like to add something else – please don’t play favorites. If you set rules about overtime, when PTO has to be used, or how much vacation time can be used at one time, be consistent. Don’t tell one person they need to use 1/2 day PTO for missing one hour due to a doctor’s appointment, and let another person make up an hour because they wanted to go shopping on their lunch break. Don’t insist that non smokers strictly adhere to their break times, while letting smokers go outside to smoke every hour or so “because they get nervous”. People can see the inequality, and the ones on the short end of the stick resent it.

  6. Erica B*

    My boss is a big fan of #1… tends to only give negative feedback if any at all. It’s something I’ve learned to accept after 10 years, as he is at work maybe 15 mins a day (sometimes he works out of the office, but doesn’t tell us and doesn’t show up- maybe 3x/month). I also think he doesn’t have a good grasp on the stuff my coworkers and I actually do. He has an idea, but doesn’t stick around long enough to witness it. Thus, the only time we hear anything is when there is a problem, and then his tone can be very condescending which I don’t he realizes.

Comments are closed.