5 common manager missteps—and better alternatives

Communication is at the heart of leadership at every level of an organization, but solving problems and handling workplace emotions can be challenging.

bad comms habits

Managers are a crucial component of internal communication, employee engagement and overall business success.

Unfortunately, many are undertrained, underprepared and ill-suited to the task of leading people.

Here are five common manager mistakes, along with thoughts on how to lead more effectively:

1. Focusing on the negative

It’s easy for our brain to identify things we don’t like—lateness to meetings, missed deadlines, snide remarks—because they go against what we expect or would like to happen. We are generally more aware of the negative than the positive.

Once you start noticing things you don’t like, it’s easy for your brain to dwell on them. Suddenly an employee who is doing much more right than they are wrong is a screw-up. You spend every day wondering what they’re going to screw up next, rather than seeing things they’re doing right.

Because humans are imperfect, you’ll find things they screw up. Worse yet, your perception of them might taint how you perceive everything they deliver.

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

2. Leaving emotions at the door

At a recent management conference, a heated debate erupted about 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, you’re asking for trouble if you expect employees to be unemotional robots. Even worse, you’re stealing the opportunity for them to be passionate about what they’re doing. To motivate people, you must engage their emotions; it’s the only way people can only fulfill their potential.

Do this instead: Generally, 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 their feelings, even if you disagree with their perception of what’s gone on.

The validation aspect is important. When managers don’t acknowledge that work can be emotionally trying, employees are left feeling unbalanced, and the battle becomes: “My boss doesn’t listen to me and thinks I’m crazy.” Simply validating feelings helps everyone to move on quickly, and then you can focus on a solution.

3. Lack of one-on-one time

The face-to-face meeting helps you connect with your direct reports to understand what they’re working on and what they’re proud of, as well as to reinforce their contributions. Unfortunately, many managers do one of the following:

  • They don’t have one-on-one meetings with their team members at all.
  • They don’t have one-on-one meetings with any 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 won’t get that without regular face time.

Do this instead: Schedule a weekly one-on-one meeting with every direct report, and consider it one of the most important meetings on your calendar. Do not cancel, except in an emergency. They needn’t take long; usually 30 minutes will do it.

4. Lack of empathy

It’s troubling when managers say, “I don’t want you to come to me with problems; I want you to come with solutions.”

Of course, the objective here is good: You want your employees to solve pressing issues 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 that they just don’t know how to solve?

Do this instead: Instead of shooing someone out the door if they come to you with a problem but no solution, coach them. If it’s a something they could solve, ask how they would do so and empower them to do it. If the problem is larger, thank them for alerting you and 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 support them.

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.

Too often, people are intimidated by their manager or they fear retribution for offering feedback. Saying they can give feedback 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; then use it as an opportunity to brainstorm.

Want to know how you’re doing in general? Ask for feedback in your one-on-one meetings. Do this quarterly and consistently. Make sure there will be no negative consequences if they offer an honest opinion about the state of affairs.

Never underestimate your power. As a manager, your job is to cultivate a supportive environment. They look up to you, and the little things matter.

None of the options presented above take significantly more time; they just require a new way of looking at things. If some of it feels uncomfortable, that’s good. Growth happens when we feel uncomfortable.

Dr. Karlyn Borysenko is an organizational psychologist and founder of Zen Workplace. This article was originally published on the Zen Workplace blog.


One Response to “5 common manager missteps—and better alternatives”

    Paul says:

    THANK YOU for re-publishing the piece. After 25+ years in the field of Communications, I was recently told by a manager that I needed to work on my Emotional Intelligence – that was a first! With a background in Psychology and Communications, I’m probably more diligent than most about the words I choose, how I express myself and come across to others, etc. I think we’re a bit quick at times to latch on to the latest business concept/jargon and use it liberally to appear to be innovative or progressive. I couldn’t agree more that we’re doing a disservice if we act like automatons in the office, void of or repressing emotions. Who does that benefit when you really drill down to it? Of course, we can’t go around shaking our fists at the sky and bellowing at co-workers, but letting others know how we feel, voicing displeasure, frustration, or dissatisfaction should not be discouraged or frowned upon. When we ask employees to “leave their emotions at the door” what we’re aiming to do is avoid debate, conflict, or disagreement. We may even justify doing so for the betterment of business – it’s a distraction or detracts from getting work done, it creates discord, etc. – but does it really? Don’t turn away from it; embrace it! Yes, it may feel a little uncomfortable but often this is where true ideas and improvement originate from. Why would we want to stifle that?

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