The Most Common Mistakes Managers Make and How to Fix Them

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Jul 23, 2018

I’ve trained thousands of managers in different industries, with different levels of seniority and experience, with teams large and small. And, while they certainly all have their unique nuances, I see some of the same manager mistakes popping up consistently, over and over again.

Here are five of the most common manager mistakes I see, and a few thoughts on how to do it differently.

Manager mistake #1: Focusing on the negative

It’s easy for our brain to identify things we don’t like – people being late to meetings, missed deadlines, someone making an off-handed remark in a meeting, etc. – because it goes against what we expect, or would like, to happen. It doesn’t follow the pattern our brain is looking for, thus it stands out. On the other hand, it’s a lot more difficult to be consciously aware of all the things that are going right, because most of the time, that means things are just proceeding business as usual. They aren’t as noticeable as the things that are going wrong. That means that we are generally more aware of the negative than the positive.

Once we start noticing things we don’t like, it’s very easy for your brain to focus on just those things. Suddenly an employee who is generally doing well, and is doing much more right than they are wrong, is the screw-up. You look at them every day wondering what they’re going to screw up next, rather than looking for the things they’re doing right.

Does that employee have any chance of being successful if you never see or acknowledge the things they’re doing well?

Probably not. You’re expecting to see them screw up and, because humans are imperfect, you will absolutely be able to find things they screw up! Or, worse yet, your perception of them will taint how you subjectively perceive everything they deliver.

Do this instead: If you’re starting to feel like one of your employees isn’t performing up to snuff, keep yourself honest by proactively identifying things they are doing right. Look for ways they are being successful, rather than ways they are failing. Then, offer them help and coaching on the things they aren’t doing so well, and keep track of progress they are making, looking for improvement rather than looking for failure.

Manager mistake #2: Leaving emotions at the door

I led a workshop at the 2018 SHRM Annual Conference called Everything You Need To Know About Managing People, and we got into a heated debate about the place of emotions at work. About half the room thought emotions should be left outside the office. The other half argued that we can’t expect human beings to leave their emotions at home.

Generally speaking, I’m on the latter team. You’re asking for trouble if you expect people to be unemotional robots at work. Even worse, you’re stealing the opportunity for them to truly be passionate about what they’re doing (passion is an emotion!). If you want a team of people who are engaged and motivated, you cannot achieve that without engaging their emotions for better or worse. It’s simply not the way our brain is wired to work. We are emotional beings and can only access our true potential if our emotions are engaged.

Do this instead: Generally, I see the issue of emotions come up when you have an employee crying in your office. When that happens, let them. Listen fully to what they are saying. Don’t make them feel like a failure for showing their emotions. Validate that it is OK to feel the way they do, even if you disagree with their perception of what’s gone on.

The validation piece is specifically important. When managers don’t validate that work can (sometimes) be emotionally trying, employees are just left feeling as though they are crazy, and then that’s what the battle is – “My boss doesn’t listen to me and thinks I’m crazy.” Simply validating it allows everyone go move on quickly, and then you can focus on a solution.

Manager mistake #3: Lack of one-on-one time

The one-on-one meeting is your regular time to connect with each person who reports directly to you on a human level, to understand what they’re working on, what they’re proud of, and to reinforce the impact of their contribution to the organization. Unfortunately, lots of managers fall into one of the following categories:

  • They don’t have one-on-one meetings with their team members at all.
  • They don’t have one-on-one meetings with any sort of consistency and predictability.
  • They have consistent one-on-one meetings, but they do them weeks, or even months, apart.

Your job as a manager is to get the best out of your team members, so they are contributing to the organization at their highest level. Your employees look to you for direction, support, guidance, and encouragement. They aren’t going to get that if they don’t have direct face time on a regular basis.

Do this instead: Schedule a weekly one-on-one meeting with each person that reports to you directly and consider it to be one of the most important meetings on your calendar. Do not cancel it for any reason unless it is an emergency. They don’t need to take long – usually 30 minutes will do it. Follow this meeting format.

Manager mistake #4: Come with solutions

I’m a big fan of any manager being forward looking and solutions-focused – that keeps the team focused on an optimistic vision of the future, rather than on the details that are getting in their way right now. However, there’s one thing that drives me crazy above almost all others: When managers say “I don’t want you to come to me with problems – I want you to come with solutions.”

Of course, the intent here is good: You want your employees to think about how to move forward productively rather than dwelling on what’s going wrong and waiting for someone else to fix it. However, what happens when an employee encounters a problem (and usually it’s a big one) that they just don’t know how to solve? Those are the things you need them bringing to you, and then you can help them to solve it.

Do this instead: Instead of shooing them out the door if they come to you with a problem that doesn’t have a solution, coach them! If it’s something they should be able to solve on their own, remind them of that by asking them how they would solve it and then empowering them to go do it. If the problem is larger, thank them for bringing it to you and then include them in a brainstorm about how to handle it. You may not come up with the solution in that talk, but you have reinforced that you have their back and will support them.

Manager mistake #5: The open door policy

“I’ve got an open door policy.” Well, has anyone ever used it? Most of the time, the answer is a sharp no.

People don’t take advantage of open door policies because they are intimidated by their manager, or they fear retribution for whatever feedback they might offer. Saying they can give you feedback through your open door policy isn’t enough – you have to make them feel safe doing it.

Do this instead: Want to know your team member’s perception of how a project is going? Ask them, “What’s going to hold us back from being successful?” You can do this one-on-one, or in a team meeting and use it as an opportunity to brainstorm.

Want to know how you’re doing in general? Take the bull by the horns and ask your team members for feedback on a regular basis as a part of your one-on-one meetings. I recommend doing this once a quarter, consistently. And you’ve got to make sure there are no negative consequences for them offering an honest opinion about the state of affairs.

Never underestimate the amount of power you have

As a manager, your job is to cultivate an environment that supports the success of your team. They look up to you, and the little things matter. None of the options presented in this article take significantly more time – they just require a new way of looking at things. And if some of it feels uncomfortable, that’s good. Growth happens when we feel uncomfortable.

This article was originally published on the Zen Workplace.