Managers receive remarkably little training, given how important the role is to a team’s success and how many people managers interact with 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. And once there, they’re often left to figure out for themselves what good management looks like.
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 blunders. Do these sound familiar?
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.
If your boss doesn’t give you much input on your performance, take the initiative, schedule a meeting and ask for feedback on your performance. It may help to come armed with data on specific projects you’ve worked on to help trigger his (or her) memory.
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.
Again, if your boss has been unclear about goals, be proactive and ask. Frame it in a way that makes clear you want to make sure that you are directing your energy and time in a way that supports your boss’s and the company’s priorities.
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.
If your boss avoids tough conversations, it can be difficult to assess if something is amiss. But keeping an open line of communication and asking for regular feedback can give you both a forum to address any issues that come up before they develop into real problems.
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’re a manager and 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 red flag that you’ve lost sight of what you’re there to achieve.
And if you’ve got a manager who seems to be focused on the wrong things, make sure you’re clear on his (or her) business priorities (e.g. the results that count) so that you know where to put your energy. Track your accomplishments and let your boss know about good feedback from clients or strong performance results. And if face-time matters to your boss, you might need to either humor that preference or accept that you'll be perceived differently as a result.
Acting Like Something is a Suggestion When It’s a Directive
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.
If this is how your manager behaves, get clear on her expectations so you know the difference between a suggestion and a directive.
Being Unwilling 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 a manager and you’re serious about having a high-performing team, you’ll have to be willing to fire people. You can do everything else right — set clear goals and expectations, delegate effectively, give 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.
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 that sometimes other people’s ideas are better than their own. That’s a good thing — that’s part of the value of having a team.
As a team member, be sensitive to how feedback can be perceived by your boss. There are ways to phrase feedback (even to a terrible idea) so your boss can get the message and still save face.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on careers, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of “How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” and “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results,” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, including hiring and firing.