6 common leadership mistakes new managers make

If you’re an experienced leader you probably have a much different perspective than you did as a new manager. The leadership mistakes you made earlier in your career offered you the opportunity to learn and grow in your management style and knowledge, although some of those lessons may have been difficult to learn.

“New manager” doesn’t only refer to a junior-level worker earning that first leadership seat. It could mean a very successful solopreneur hires a team, and must now effectively manage people. Perhaps you recently purchased a franchise location and are leading entry-level staff for the first time. There are many reasons you may be a new manager or new leader, so let’s make sure you win.

This article helps new leaders take some of the pain out of learning those lessons, by outlining mistakes many new leaders make. There is undoubtedly a long list of potential missteps common to new managers, but here are 5 mistakes that can delay or derail your continued professional climb.

Poor relationship management. Managing relationships at the leadership level is a critical element to effective leadership. This includes relationships with peers and superiors, as well as those who report to you. 

For new leaders it can be a bit intimidating to begin relating to your former superiors as peers but it’s important to make that transition. Consider scheduling an “initial update” meeting with each new peer you’ll be working with on a regular basis or those peers that intersect with your new role. Use this time to learn about their priorities so you can understand where you and your work group can impact those goals. Similar meetings with your direct supervisor(s) can help you understand the broader organizational goals, and also lets your supervisor know you’re committed to success in this new role. Remember, leadership is often built on the relationships you make that enable you to advance the organization’s goals.

Relationships with subordinates can be a bit complicated–especially if you used to be their peer. If that’s the case, begin by acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation (if it exists). Look for ways to continually enhance relationships with your team members. Assure your team that you’ll work hard to be a great leader and create a positive working environment. This commitment will go a long way, even in times of (unavoidable) slip-ups as a new manager. Hold regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with those who report directly to you so you can establish and maintain a connection. Listen to their input on work they’re involved in, and ask about their professional goals. If your team knows you’re genuinely working to be a strong leader who’s interested in their feedback and career growth, you’ll create relationships that yield a loyal and high-performing team.

Dictating all decisions. So you’re a new leader, does that mean you suddenly have all the answers? Of course not. However, some new managers fall into this trap. Experienced leaders understand when they need to make decisions individually or collaboratively. Unfortunately, many new leaders think they need to make all decisions all the time. Typically this may be due to one or two reasons. 

The first is that some new leaders mistakenly assume that the title of “manager” is the same as “king” or “queen”. They rule as a dictator, not allowing their employees to have input or question processes. They quickly alienate peers and subordinates as they demonstrate their ability to be a one-man-show and their inability to collaborate or build a team. This type of leadership–especially from a new leader–is a terrible mistake. Rather than “king” or “queen”, a manager is more similar to a coach. For those who are into professional sports, consider a coach of a winning team. That coach seeks input and partnership from all team members, even more so from high performing team members. Leading teams requires the give and take of a pro sports coach if you’re going to win the game.

The other reason new leaders make this common mistake is that they don’t want to seem unsure or if they’re not ready for this new role. The resolution for this requires a bit more finesse, as there may actually be detractors waiting for you to fail. If so, you don’t want to provide fodder for their conversation. At the same time, you can’t blindly continue to make every decision without team collaboration, just so you look like you know what you’re talking about. You will be found out eventually. It’s best if you identify a mentor (formal or informal) who you trust to talk to, get feedback and ask questions that will help you make informed decisions. Take notes in meetings so you can research and fill in the blanks later. As you become more knowledgeable about your organization and key initiatives, you will feel more comfortable sharing decision-making with your team and peers. 

Not delegating. Whether it’s a fear of appearing as if they’re having team members do their jobs or a case of “when you want it done right you gotta do it yourself”, many new managers get a failing grade for delegation. Sharing and directing work projects is critical to a work group’s ability to be successful over the long term. There will be times when leaders are managing multiple competing priorities, receive project requests that aren’t utilizing their full skill sets, or just have a vacation planned. Whatever the reason, there will be a need to delegate to staff. The key is knowing what to delegate and to whom.

Don’t think of delegation as piling more work on an unsuspecting team member. Understand that this is how the team accomplishes its goals. Delegation of work helps leaders prioritize projects that they absolutely must handle personally, while ensuring that other projects continue to move forward. This can be a professional development opportunity for those who are perhaps ready to take on more/different projects, helping you identify high potential team members.

Leaders who cannot effectively delegate run the risk of becoming overwhelmed with projects and deadlines, and may also be viewed as a “work hoarder” by those who may be interested in some of the projects that lay untouched on your desk. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to personally do it all. There will always be more work.

Avoiding conflict or tough decisions. Managing people is a tough gig. There are personality conflicts, poor performers and difficult decisions to be made almost every day. If you don’t like having candid conversations or making tough leadership calls, stop reading now and know that leadership is not for you. If you’re still reading, you have to commit to being tougher than your next decision.

Avoiding conflict or difficult decisions is only delaying the inevitable. While it’s tempting to carry on like there are no issues, the situation typically only becomes worse. Additionally, leaders who actively avoid these situations may damage their reputations, because everyone else is talking about it even if you’re not.

The “people decisions” will always be the most difficult and complex. If you have a poor performer who is jeopardizing the team’s effectiveness or his/her own continued employment, you should commit to talking with that team member early and often. Don’t wait until the annual evaluation to deliver bad news about performance. Transparent monthly (or weekly) touch-base discussions can help that team member understand your expectations and any performance gaps.

Continual disagreements between team members can be just as challenging, particularly when they’re impacting overall team performance or morale. Again, an “early and often” approach can be very beneficial. This is not a time to take sides, even if you have one. Start with a group conversation, letting the involved employee know that the conflict is affecting the team. Plan to follow up with individual meetings so each team member has a chance to share their perspective with you and feels heard. However, be clear that your goal is to resolve the issue so the team can be successful and you expect them to contribute to a resolution. Ultimately, some people just can’t work together. In this case, you don’t need to change their minds, just change their behavior.

For other difficult decisions that don’t originate with your team members, the rule of thumb should be to gather all the relevant information/data you can prior to the decision and do the best you can. Base your decision on information, not emotion. You should be able to explain the rationale behind any decision, including those you didn’t want to make. Once you’ve made the decision, be transparent about the reasoning and stick to the decision. Unpopular decisions that are changed after the fact can usually be traced back to a poor leader or insufficient information used to make the decision.

Being everyone’s best friend. You’ve heard “it’s lonely at the top”. Well it can be a bit lonely in the middle as well. No matter where you are on the leadership ladder your goal can’t be to win a popularity contest. If you’re doing your job (and making tough decisions), someone isn’t going to like you. And that’s okay. You want to have solid and effective working relationships, but you didn’t take the role to make new friends. Hopefully.

If you’re leading team members who used to be your peers you need to pivot pretty quickly from friend to boss. Tough move. This doesn’t mean you can’t still be friendly, but you need to balance being a friend vs being the boss. So you should skip Friday night happy hour with the staff. And definitely no more work gossip with those who report to you. This has a way of catching up with you.

Being overly friendly with your direct reports could potentially cloud your judgement as a leader, causing you to assign Marion less work (you know she has a stressful home life) or excuse Eric’s chronic tardiness (he hangs out late every night, but he’s still a good guy). Meanwhile, the rest of your team is watching and you’re becoming known as a manager who has favorites.

Not seeking leadership training. In most industries you’re promoted into leadership because you were successful at the previous role. And while this means you’ve mastered the technical job skills it does not mean you’re ready to lead a team. Being a successful leader requires a broad skill set, including tools such as effective communications, active listening and team engagement, among others. Most organizations provide limited (if any) continuing education around leadership, so it’s up to leaders to pursue ongoing leadership learning.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to earn a degree in leadership. There are many resources you can access to hone your leadership skills. This includes career or leadership podcasts, books or online resources. Whatever the source, it is your responsibility to continue advancing your leadership knowledge.

Being a leader requires a commitment beyond the promotion. Those who’ve been doing it for years can certainly attest to that. The day you took the job the bar was raised, and everything you did to earn the opportunity to lead was instantly old news. Now it’s time to show that you’re the right person for the job. Of course you are. Just remember, each day is Day One on your ongoing leadership journey.


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