The 4 Biggest Mistakes First-Time Managers Make (And How To Avoid Them)

What worked for you as a star employee may be your downfall as a new manager.

After years of quality hard work, you, the star employee, have been promoted to be a manager of a team, a first-time accomplishment for you. Congrats! You should take time to feel proud of this achievement. But you also don’t have time to waste.

As soon as you accept this new role, your superiors and your reports will be judging how you lead, and once opinions are formed, they will be hard to shake off. You have to prove yourself all over again. And what worked for you as an individual performer may be your downfall as a manager of warring egos and goals.

Just because you're the boss now doesn't guarantee that you'll be seen as an authority.
aklionka via Getty Images
Just because you're the boss now doesn't guarantee that you'll be seen as an authority.

Here are the biggest pitfalls you need to avoid, career experts say:

1. You stick only to what made you successful as an employee

If you stick only to what you know works, you are going to fail as a new boss.

“The one [mistake] I see a lot is thinking that everybody is going to behave exactly as you behave and want the same things that you want,” said Lara Hogan, author of “Resilient Management” and the former vice president of engineering at Kickstarter. “Generally, when we become a manager, we are just trying to do our best, and the shortcut to doing our best is, ‘Well, what would I want in this situation? What would I need?’ It’s very natural to leap from that to assuming that everybody else is going to want or need the same needs that you do.”

In his onboarding book for managers, “The First 90 Days,” leadership development consultant Michael D. Watkins argues that you have only 90 days to earn the trust and support of an organization or success will become much less likely. He cites one real-life example of a failed transition to management, a woman named Julia who was assigned to be the launch manager for a consumer electronics company’s new product. The extraordinary attention to detail that made Julia a great marketer caused her new team members, who wanted to make their own contributions without intrusive oversight, to see her as a micromanager. When her team challenged her authority, she focused on what she was comfortable with micromanaging: the marketing aspects. After a month and a half in the role, she had antagonized her team to the point where someone else was assigned to lead them.

One of the biggest traps new leaders make is not letting go of the past and failing to embrace the new requirements of the role, Watkins states. For Julia, that would have meant embracing a project-leadership role and not focusing on just the marketing aspects. “[Julia] failed to grasp that the strengths that made her successful in marketing could be liabilities in a role that required her to lead without direct authority or superior expertise,” Watkins said, adding that she “kept doing what she knew how to, making her feel confident and in control. The result, of course, was the opposite.”

Solution: Accelerate your learning by asking questions and actively listening to the answers you get. Ask open questions that are genuinely curious instead of leading, and then actively listen to what responses you get from your team before you figure out what you want to say next, Hogan said.

“‘What if you tried this?’ is not an open question. ‘What’s important about this? What’s hard about this? What does this best look like?’ ― those are genuinely good open questions,” Hogan said. “That’s the first, biggest tool you have in your toolbox to avoid this mistake.”

Once you embrace your need to learn, you can be honest with yourself about your leadership weaknesses. Identify what problem-solving skills don’t come to you naturally, Watkins suggests, noting that three basic tools to compensate for your vulnerabilities are “self-discipline, team building, and advice and counsel.”

2. You don’t prioritize earning your team’s trust

When you use your boss title to get your way, you are under the misconception that your authority is enough of an influence to get things done. But you need the backing of the people behind you and above you to be an effective leader. Randy Conley, a vice president of client services and a trust practice leader for The Ken Blanchard Cos., said the biggest mistake new managers make is not spending enough time getting to know their team members and earning their trust.

“Most new managers assume they already have their team’s trust by virtue of their position and title. ‘I’m the boss, so, therefore, you should trust me’ is their line of thinking,” Conley said.

Solution: Make time to get to know your team. “Building rapport, listening and showing genuine concern lays the foundation for a high-trust relationship. There is truth in the old adage, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,’” Conley said.

If you want to build your influence at work, figure out what your colleagues care about by asking lots of questions to them, so that you can translate your requests into the language they are familiar with, Hogan said. “For example, if someone really cares about hitting a particular business metric, you have to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening to figure what about that matters to them, and then reframe the thing that you want to do using that language: ’Here’s how we’re going to help move that metric... ,” Hogan said.

3. You rush to take early action so you can make your ‘mark’

When you march in on your first day and announce that you are going to overhaul systems and trash the old way of doing things, you are sending a message to your employees that the predictable routines they plan their days around are over. And that’s unsettling.

One of the core needs humans at work want fulfilled is predictability, according to a behavioral model developed by performance coach Paloma Medina. Giving your employees predictability does not mean you are giving them guarantees you cannot commit to ― that you won’t make any changes, for example ― but it does mean you give them notice to help them plan for challenges.

Solution: Spend time listening and asking questions before big changes. “New managers should spend plenty of time observing, learning how the team works, asking insightful questions, gathering data, building trust, catching people doing things right, and then come up with a plan to make changes where necessary,” Conley said.

Hogan said that when she starts out as a first-time manager somewhere, she likes to gather data for the first 30 days by asking questions like “What is one thing we should change?” and “What is one thing we should definitely not change?”

There should be a slow approach to change: “Your first 30 days are sponge mode, just asking questions,” Hogan said. “The second 30 days, you are actually starting to tiptoe around what are the changes you want to roll out. The last 30 days of your first 90 days, you are actually potentially enacting some change or introducing some change.”

4. You get too friendly with the people you manage

“One of the biggest mistakes ... is not establishing boundaries and just being grateful to be in the position. We sometimes try and be everyone’s friend, which can be hard to come back from,” said Minda Harts, founder of The Memo LLC, a career development company for women of color. “I found myself in this situation as a new manager, and some of my direct reports did not see me as their manager or take feedback from me seriously. I didn’t set up the right boundaries from the start.“

This challenge is common. In a survey of nearly 300 first-time managers, having trouble with displaying authority was the most common struggle, cited by 59% of the group.

Getting too friendly with employees does not help display authority. Research has found that getting too close to the people you manage can make work less efficient. A 2019 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology that analyzed the interactions of 73 employee-manager pairs found that workers in the stronger relationships felt less pressure to return a favor right away, resulting in lower employee engagement.

Solution: Set clear expectations and build a stronger relationship to yourself. When you make the transition from friendly colleague to boss, know that you will have to privilege the professional aspect of this relationship, so that no one thinks your friends get better information from you than non-friends. Setting expectations can mean having a conversation with your work friend about how your relationship will change, such as the frequency of one-on-one time at work, as soon as you get promoted.

Examine where your need to be friends with colleagues is coming from. For Harts, it took becoming secure in her position to change her management style. At a job where she was “happy” and “grateful” to be a boss, she was the only Black woman in a leadership position. Harts said she led “from a place of fear instead of courage.... Later I realized that I am an asset and worked hard for this position, and I deserved to be in leadership. I had to shift my mindset.”

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