The Biggest Mistake I’ve Made as a Manager

biggest-mistake-as-a-manager.jpgIn my first full year of leading a team, I’ve had my fair share of ups, downs, lefts and rights. My transition from worker-bee to boss-lady hasn’t been the smoothest. After taking some time to reflect on my journey, I reached a “Eureka!” moment about management. I’m going to share it with all of you in hopes that it will help you reach your own “Eureka” moment a little sooner.

After a year of flailing under the harsh glare of the management spotlight, I realized that my problem was shockingly simple. The biggest mistake I was making as a manger was:

I assumed that everyone else was as good an employee as I was.

My high school biology teacher used to say that “to assume is to make an ass out of you and me.” I assumed that since I was a good employee everyone else must be one too. I just couldn’t understand why some people would turn in projects riddled with typos or come unprepared to meetings. Where was their sense of pride in their work? Didn’t they feel satisfaction in a job well done?

For example, a friend of mine works for a large game testing company where the turnover is extremely high and the qualifications for employment are very low. People there are being terminated on a regular basis. In one instance, an employee was let go for bringing a pornographic DVD to the office and watching it on his work computer. Another employee was fired for sleeping on the job and in his “exit interview” started screaming at the HR rep to show him where exactly in his contract it said he couldn’t nap at his desk. The rep pointed the “at will” clause in the contract and sent him on his way.

While I realize that it’s impossible to create a policy that will account for all unacceptable work behaviors, I do think that, as a manager, people look to you to set expectations and lead by example. You may be thinking that anyone with some common sense would know how to act appropriately at the office (Bringing porn to work? Really?) but the reality is that everyone’s definition of “appropriate” is different.

That is why these are the most important things you can do as a manager to make sure your team is happy, healthy and productive:

  • Set expectations of behavior early – this could include office hours, dress code, etc.
  • Create and communicate deliverables – set firm deadlines for projects and enforce them.
  • Give praise for meeting expectations – this could be as simple as saying “great work!” Discourage poor performance – follow-up when someone fails to meet expectations and address any issues right away.
  • Be willing to listen – sometimes expectations can be too high for some people. Solicit feedback and consider adjusting if necessary.

But what if you already do all these things and your employees still don’t perform? By establishing a minimum level of performance, your employees can either choose to float to the surface or sink to the bottom. If you have a sinker weighing you down, it might be time for that person to consider finding another pond to swim in.

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13 responses »

  1. You also need to occassionally raise the bar in work expectations. Too many people figure out how to coast at work and then the group starts to get sloppy.

    If I don’t constantly keep my people on their toes here at work, they start to slip. It seems like a lot of work, but it isn’t really. Maybe try to challenge them with a team goal that requires them to delegate a bit among themselves. Maybe set the standard of “Do x number of improvements to the process this year,” and then next year make it x+1.

    Also, I would amend the “follow-up when someone fails to meet expectations and address any issues right away” part and add, “Make sure that you try to discern if there are any outside or personal problems interferring with work. Try to address these and go the extra yard to get them help when it is needed.”

  2. A thoughtful post. I have one story to illustrate the be willing to listen. I walked into a workplace where I was a manager some years ago. I would greet my employees, and stop to listen to what they would say when I asked how they were. I then proceeded to the office where the other managers were to prepare for my shift. They immediately asked me to go speak to one staff member to ask them to perform a task, so I did. Back in the office, I wondered why none of the other managers had gone to speak to this person. All responded that this employee apparently only listens to me. Later I went out to this person to ask if that was true. She looked at me and responded that I was the only manager who would stop to ask about how they were doing, and talk to them about how to do their job better. For that reason alone, she decided that she was not going to give me grief.

    To me, this was a good reminder that you have to respect employees by listening to them to ensure better work.

  3. “Set expectations of behavior early”

    That seems like it should be obvious, but it isn’t. I think a particularly difficult a situation is one where a manager is promoted from within a group, or is managing a group of people who are or were “friends.” The situation then sets the stage for insiders and outsiders.

    Consciously or not, the friends will expect a less formal working relationship with their manager and may be less willing to put out a lot of effort than a non-friend employee. For a manager, this is a potential mine field of employee problems.

  4. Well, I’m from indonesia and I study Business Studies at school, so i know a little about business world. Well i think that business world is full of unexpected things and eventhough i study business, i feel that business isn’t part of my life and i’ve chosen the wrong choice! Could anyone help me?

  5. Once you’ve set clear expectations, it’s important to keep in mind the three sins of performance management. They are:

    1. Good Performance is punished (You’re the only one who showed up on time so I need you to help me with extra work.)

    2. Poor Performance is rewarded (Since you didn’t get here on time, we did that work for you.)

    3. Performance is ignored (It doesn’t matter what you do, everyone gets the same 3% raise.)

    Without alignment between expectations and rewards/recognition, you end up with something you don’t want.

  6. Problem with rewarding good performance through raises is that most corporations now are only allowing managers to issue a standard of living raise (3%). So everyone gets the same raise regardless of performance.

    My company likes to give out awards. Some of them have money or gifts or favors attached to them. It is good on paper, but half the time, only the people who are in the client’s faces win these awards.

    I reward good performance with time off. If they did exceptionally well and the project is a success, I allow each participant to take a 4 hour “off the record” vacation, to be used on slow days. Most of my workers then save up a few of these to take a day off (I make them work out a schedule between them how to do it without leaving me short-handed and only intervene when they can’t agree). It feels like empowerment to them, and keeps them happy.

  7. Mcclaud – that is the best idea I have read for a reward in a long long time. I think additional time off is an often under-utilized perk that doesn’t really cost the company anything!

  8. You might like this site from the author of the book Make Their Day.

    By the way, in the sins I didn’t mention anything about rewarding good performance. I just wanted to point out that we often reward poor performance often unintentionally. A lot of the poor workplace behaviors continue becasue we reward them.

  9. Excellent post and very good responses. I agree that respect is a critical factor. Your team members need to know that you care, that you are interested in them and that they have your full attention. When you sincerely listen you’re showing them respect. By listening you make them feel comfortable and important. This is a positive message which cements trust and opens the door wider for encouraging good performance.

  10. Another thing you’ll want to avoid is dodging responsibility when something goes wrong and not being as honest as you can be with your subordinates.

    One thing that I see destroy manager after manager is their inability to assume responsibility for their team’s mistakes and shortcomings. Instead, we have a lot of finger-pointing that doesn’t actually fix the problem. Then it builds and builds until the truth comes out about who’s under-performing and making the most mistakes. Not only does the manager in charge get fired, he’s booted with a mark on his record now.

    Instead, managers with problematic teams need to own their problems and mistakes and work proactively to fix and avoid future problems. Part of it means managers have to learn to take criticism and “the hit” on issues. Once that happens and they begin taking initiative, at least when another mistake is made, the manager has proof of a plan to improve the team.

    The honesty issue is another grand problem in the current workplace. Most managers are not honest with either themselves or their teams. In fact, they tend to speak disingenuously to other people to the point that no one feels safe or confident under that manager anymore. At times, managers will pad their words and promises in the hopes of boosting morale, and it will backfire horribly. Omitting truths and telling half-truths is also bad practice. If you cannot say something about the subject truthfully (maybe about a RIF or some other manager-only information), then you should remark that you are not allowed to comment on such subjects and refrain from drawing out the discussion.

  11. This was a great post and some very good comments. This has been my experience as well. Assuming that people have the same work ethics as I do… unfortunately this was a rude awakening. It has been a growing experience. I appreciate your points… these are very true.

  12. The art of management is a never-ending series of lessons and a rather long (and lonely) journey. One of the best short articles I’ve ever read about being a new manager is by Linda A. Hill (HBR) titled, Becoming the Boss.

    Two great stories that are the key to what managers face daily:
    (a) One manager said, “Becoming a manager is not about becoming a boss. It’s about becoming a hostage.”
    (b) Another manager discovered the following: “It’s humbling that someone who works for me could get me fired.”

    If one realizes this and takes it to heart, the the art of management becomes a lot easier! Good luck on being a manager, it’s definitely not for everyone and do hope you update your experience over the past several months!


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