The Worst New-Manager Mistakes

Michael Scott

Last Updated Mar 17, 2010 2:20 PM EDT

Dunder Mifflin's Michael Scott

If the mistakes you've made as a rookie manager make you cringe, you're not alone. Many people struggle with the transition to overseeing their colleagues — and they usually don't get much help from their employers. Last year the Institute for Corporate Productivity surveyed hundreds of employees to determine how well their companies helped people make the switch to management. The results were dismal: More than 60 percent rated their firm's performance as "fair;" 16 percent said it was "poor."

So that leaves managers to learn from their mistakes, which is, of course, often the best way to improve. Here, five seasoned managers tell us in their own words some of their most painful lessons as newbies.

My mistake: I let an employee intimidate me.

When I first started managing in 1994, I oversaw a salesperson who was old enough to be my mom. She knew her job, but sometimes she chose not to do it. Some months she would make her sales goals, some months, she wouldn’t. As a new manager, I was hesitant to give her direction and intimidated by her age. When other people started mentioning that she was coming in late and taking personal phone calls at work, I made a serious mistake. I told her that other people were complaining about her, instead of reporting my own observations. She said, ‘Well, I do my job.’ Worried about her feelings, I said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ I should have said, ‘You may think you’re doing your job, but the business results show that you’re not.’ I lived with her uneven performance, even though it was stressful, and she stayed on after I left.

Now if I have a problem like that, I take immediate corrective action, instead of losing sleep over it. When I managed an administrative worker who consistently called in sick about three times a week, saying her stomach hurt, I was sympathetic for a short time. But I quickly realized what she was up to and insisted she seek medical attention. When she didn’t do that, I gave her 10 days to straighten up. After three weeks of perfect attendance, she called in sick again. I told her not to bother coming in. She showed up that afternoon and we never had a problem with her attendance again.

— Anne Brush Zimos, 43, manager of a design services team at IBM in Armonk, N.Y.

My mistake: I spent too much time trying to inspire low-performers.

After I graduated from Boston University, I served as an officer in the Marine Corps. After a six-month leadership training course in 1990, I was put in charge of 40 Marines. They knew the ropes, and some were determined to test me. Marines typically line up for morning formation at 7:30 a.m. On my first day, my second-in-command didn’t organize everyone. When I asked him why, he told me, ‘We don’t do that anymore, sir.’ I insisted that he start lining everyone up on time, which he did — but it was like Whac-a-Mole. When I asked him to inspect the barracks for cleanliness, he said, ‘We don’t do that, sir.’ Meanwhile, another Marine was showing up a half hour late every day.

I tried harder and harder to engage these men. I thought that helping them understand the logic behind the rules would help. It didn’t. I finally realized I was spending 80 to 90 percent of my time trying to motivate the 10 percent of the people who were unwilling or uninterested in giving their best effort. I decided it wasn’t worthwhile. I stayed firm on the rules and then I began to transfer or terminate those who wouldn’t perform. That brought about greater cooperation from the rest of the team. Ultimately, what helped me to lead effectively was to remind myself continually of my responsibilities as an officer, regardless of what my subordinates thought. That made it easier to do what I had to do when someone was giving me a hard time.

— Ed Barrows, 43, business strategy and performance coach in Waltham, Mass.

My mistake: I lost my cool without considering the consequences.

In 2002, I was the production manager for a residential drywall company. I managed one subcontractor who did excellent work but would always complain about how hard every project was. I was getting sick of his “woe is me” attitude. One night, when I had been on the job for about two months, I asked him to do a small project and couldn’t get him to tell me whether he would do it or not. I lost it. I started screaming at him. I said, “I’ve been on the phone with you for 30 minutes to discuss 5 minutes worth of work.” Then I threw the phone across the room and wouldn’t answer when he tried to call back. Later that night, I realized I didn’t have anyone on tap who was able to handle as much capacity as he could immediately. I called him back to beg for his forgiveness. He accepted the apology and took on the project. He became one of my regular providers for many years. In retrospect, that incident taught me to be firmer earlier in the conversation, before things escalate to the point that I lose my temper.

— Mark Ernest, 41, associate director of annual giving, Stetson University

My mistake: I made a promise I couldn’t keep.

I was a national sales manager at a plastics printing company when a representative from our customer service department accepted a job with one of our vendors. Her exit interview was the first I had ever conducted at that time in 1986. Thinking I was being nice, I told her we were going to miss her and she always had a job there. After two or three months, her new job didn’t work out. She came back to me and asked for her old one back. By then we had hired and trained a very good person to fill her spot, so I told her there were no openings. I didn’t think much about it, until later, when her daughter — who worked as our secretary and receptionist — came in and reminded me of my promise. That’s when I realized I had messed up. It was like getting punched in the gut. I knew I didn’t necessarily owe the woman a job but I never should have promised something I couldn’t deliver. Now I handle the exit interview more carefully: I stick to asking employees for their input on what the company can do better.

Alan Christopher, 52, owner of DAC Marketing, which represents manufacturers of promotional products in Austin, Texas

My mistake: I accidentally hit “reply” instead of “forward.”

The first time I managed people in a corporate environment around 2001, I supervised about 52 employees for the call center of a local bank. One woman in the group, who had served informally as trainer for the department, would always question my new initiatives and push back. After she sent me one of her typical emails, I got frustrated and sent it to our department manager, with a note saying I was tired of dealing with her and her attitude.

Unfortunately, I hit reply instead of forward, which I soon discovered when the woman approached me and asked if I had something I wanted to say to her. When she and I sat down to talk, it was contentious at first, but I came to understand that she was a person who didn’t adapt to change well. I learned that if I pulled her into the loop before starting a new initiative and asked how she felt about it, she reacted better, even if I didn’t act on her feedback. Perhaps more important, I got one tip from my manager that I’ve never forgotten: “Always forward, never reply.”

— Heather Whittaker, 37, manager of quality assurance for an insurance company call center in Appleton, Wisc., author, and leadership coach at Pen-Tech Professional.

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