How to Avoid the Most Common Mistakes New Managers Make
So many new managers don’t receive the training or skills they need to be effective, lead their teams, and achieve meaningful results. As a result, well-intentioned, hard-working new managers often trip into these common mistakes new managers make; unnecessarily frustrating their teams, diminishing their credibility, and curtailing their influence.
When you equip your managers with the essential skills to avoid these mistakes, you’ll achieve results more quickly, have more nimble teams, reduce turnover, build a strong culture, and be able to focus everyone’s energy on serving your customers with better products and services, rather than constantly dealing with internal friction.
If you’re a new manager, eliminating these mistakes and building effective habits early will leverage your influence, build your career, reduce your frustration, and help you enjoy your work. These are practical ways you can build a strong foundation for your career.
10 Mistakes New Managers Make
We’ve made many of these mistakes and seen them in many of the managers we’ve worked with. The good news is, with a bit of training and focused effort you can avoid these common mistakes new managers make. Here’s a glimpse at some of the biggest challenges for new managers and what to do instead.
1. Avoid accountability conversations (magical thinking)
New managers often engage in magical thinking. A team member is late or disrespects another person and the new manager thinks “Oh wow, that wasn’t good. Well, they certainly understand that they screwed up. I’m sure they won’t do that again.”
Then it happens again, and the new manager thinks, “I can’t believe it…that’s twice now. They’ve GOT to know that’s not cool.” And the manager doesn’t say anything. In the meantime, poor performance or toxic behavior continues and becomes the norm.
What to do: Address poor performance and disruptive behavior as soon as it happens. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it or get visibly angry. You can use the INSPIRE method to show up for a conversation with curiosity. Start with your intention for the conversation, explain what you’ve noticed, and invite their perspective. Then, when it’s appropriate, you can move to a mutual commitment and align on the next steps.
When you address accountability conversations in this way, your team member knows that you care. They know you want them to succeed. They know you want to hear their perspective. You’ve invested in them, and the team’s, success.
Additional reading: How to Provide More Meaningful Performance Feedback (this article describes a step-by-step methodology to do this well)
2. Favor friends and former peers
New managers often face the challenge of leading friends and former peers who try to leverage their relationship for special treatment. But your credibility, respect, and trustworthiness depend on treating people equitably and putting the team first.
What to do: Some people will tell you not to be friends with your team, but that’s not always possible – particularly if you’re already friends. The key is to have a conversation and set clear expectations about your new responsibilities. Be clear about what success looks like for each person and the team. Help everyone (especially your friends) understand that you care about each person individually, and, you will need to make decisions that consider the team’s welfare first.
3. Be the expert in everything
You were good at your job before you were promoted, and you have ideas about how everything should work. Of course, you want to leverage that confidence to inspire your team. But, you can’t possibly have all the answers – and your team knows it. Especially if you have responsibility for leading a team that has deep technical experience, they will know more about their work than you.
What to do: Earn the right to be heard by listening first. Get curious. Ask your team to teach you one new thing every day.
Additional reading: 9 Questions to Help Your Team Solve Problems on Their Own
4. Be a push-over
At the other end of the continuum is the manager who lacks strength and conviction. You want your people to like you, so you don’t address negative behaviors or subpar performance. Your top performers lose faith in you and the negative actors drag down the team’s performance.
What to do: Before you can practice consistent accountability and keep everyone on track, you need a solid foundation. So, reconnect to your values and the reason your team exists. You are in the role to support your people and accomplish a mission.
Reinforce the “why” behind every “what.”
Additional reading: Executive Presence is a Virtual World: What Matters Now
5. Assume people should know
This mistake is very common to new managers (and more than a few veterans!). The project makes sense to you. Follow-up activities are just “what you do.” Customer care is common sense. Everyone knows these things, right?
What to do: One of the most vital steps you can take as you start in a new leadership role is to clarify what success looks like. Use a 5 x 5 communication strategy for the most vital aspects of the team’s work. That means you communicate critical messages five different times through five different forms of communication. People will internalize these key messages when you communicate with repetition and variety.
Additional reading: 5 x 5 Communication for Remote Teams
6. Expect people to understand
This is another common mistake new managers make (and again, many veterans as well). You definitely said it. You may even have said it five times, five different ways. But what did the other person hear? They may think they understand or they may be shy to ask clarifying questions. Either way, daily misunderstandings compound to create tons of wasted time and energy.
You don’t know people truly understand until you ask them.
What to do: The solution for these misunderstandings is to “check for understanding”. Communication hasn’t happened until there is a “send” and a “receive.” When you check for understanding, ask the person you’re talking with to share their understanding. If you’re not on the same page, clarify and check again.
Additional reading: Check for Understanding: A Leadership Communication Best Practice (Video)
7. Leave follow-through to chance
Many new managers leave follow-through to chance. Even when your team is competent and has good intentions, there are many factors that disrupt follow-through and prevent them from following through on what matters most. Sometimes, you might be the disrupting factor (with other priorities you’ve delegated). Other times, it can be the crush of competing priorities from other projects or departments.
What to do: Have a conversation to “schedule the finish.” This is not simply assigning a due date. It’s a frank conversation about when all parties agree to complete the task or project and how this task interacts with other priorities. The conversation concludes with both parties scheduling the next step, completion, or follow-up conversation on their calendars. Follow-through is no longer left to chance. It’s literally scheduled for both of you.
8. Assume people know how to achieve a priority or express a value
The team has discussed their goal. You’ve checked for understanding of the team’s values. Everyone can express their KPIs. Everything’s good, right?
Not yet—understanding the goal is one thing. Understanding how to achieve it is another thing entirely. Often, another of the mistakes new managers make is to focus on the goal and push people to perform without discussing the specific activities and consistent behaviors that will help everyone achieve success. People may work hard and be busy, but their efforts don’t produce results.
What to do: For every critical goal, value, and metric, take time with your team to discuss and identify the two or three critical behaviors or activities that lead to success. If you don’t know what these are, it may take practice and investigation to figure it out.
Additional reading: Creating Clarity: Strategic Activities For Human-Centered Leaders
9. Use fear to motivate
When the team doesn’t meet its goals, a mistake new managers make is to be frustrated and rely on fear to get results. Fear is an insidious leadership trap—because it works. We’ve known many leaders who relied on fear to get results because it was an easy way to make something happen.
Fear motivates effort, but with a single focus: escape the fear. Everything else shuts down. The problem with using fear to motivate is that the “something” you get is the minimal effort people need to escape the fear. They’re not choosing to give their best and they can’t be creative.
What to do: Begin by acknowledging your own fears and anxiety. If you’re tempted to use fear as a motivator, you’re likely stressed yourself. Acknowledge your emotions. Breathe through them, reconnect to your values and the reason your team exists.
Once you’ve managed your own anxiety, bring the challenge to your team. Be real about the situation, express your confidence, and ask for their ideas about how you can get there together.
Additional reading: How to Avoid Toxic Courage Crushers in Your Organization
10. Don’t invest in trust
Some new managers assume people will trust them because of their past performance or because of their title. But trust is a relationship and relationships take time and effort to build. With a lack of trust, you’ll find everything else about your leadership is far more difficult.
What to do: Trust can feel abstract, but the people who study trust have identified four elements that consistently contribute to trust (and whose absence breaks down trust). These elements are:
- Credibility—does your team believe you know what you’re doing? (And do they feel like you believe they know what they’re doing?)
- Reliability—can your team count on you to do what you say you will do?
- Connectedness—do you and your team know one another as human beings? Do you know their “people, pets, or projects”? What matters to them outside of work?
- Best interest—do your people believe you have their best interests at heart? This is an important element of trust. If people believe you have their best interest in mind, they’ll forgive some lapse in the other elements. But if they don’t believe you have their best interest at heart, perfecting the other three won’t matter as much.
As you consider these elements of trust, where do you need to invest your time and effort? For example, some managers who mean well aren’t reliable because they over-commit and haven’t learned to manage their time. If that’s you, start by carefully considering what you say “yes” to and the commitments you make.
Identify the area where you have the most room to improve and invest in showing up there more consistently.
Additional reading: How to Build Trust More Quickly With New Employees
These ten common mistakes new managers make are also opportunities to distinguish yourself and build a sound foundation for an incredible leadership career. Refine these habits now and your influence will multiply, results will improve, and you’ll be a manager people want to work with.
We’d love to hear from you: what are some of the other common mistakes new managers mistake (and most importantly, what can they do instead to build a strong leadership foundation?)