Clinched your first managerial position? High five — it's a huge win for your career. The bigger paycheck, the coveted title, the authority to lead game-changing projects … no downsides there, right?
Well, hear us out. Being a first-time manager poses some surprising challenges. Rather than simply reporting to a higher-up, you now are a higher-up, a change that comes not only with added responsibility but also accountability to those you now lead. Even if your company provides leadership training, getting the hang of having people report to you can be trickier than you'd think.
Given the pitfalls, it’s no surprise that many newbies aren’t cut out for the task. Stats show that almost half of first-timers actually fail within their first year of taking on a managerial role. Want to make sure you're not one of them? We asked career experts for the most common rookie mistakes, plus smart advice on how you can steer clear and be a rock-star manager.
Mistake #1: You’re Stuck in the Friend Zone
When you're used to viewing your coworkers as peers, it can be awkward taking on a more commanding persona. It’s easier to continue that fun, jokey vibe — oversharing details about your weekend, trading office gossip — rather than act boss-like.
That's especially true when you’re already feeling a little self-conscious about being a notch closer to the C-suite. (Hello, impostor syndrome!)
“This generally happens when a new manager assumes that the first thing they must focus on is being liked by their team,” says executive coach and leadership expert Chris Ruisi. While it’s nice to be popular, what your staff really seeks is a leader. “Sure, a team wants to work with someone they like, but more important, the team wants to work with someone who they respect and trust,” he adds.
Overcome It: Pull back from acting like you're just another member of the team. You're higher on the company hierarchy now, and remaining a little removed will help establish your new status as someone staffers can come to for advice and guidance — without harming your rep as approachable and relatable.
Of course, you don't want to remove yourself so much that you appear snobbish; that can alienate you from the people who report to you. “Getting to know your employees is the key to motivating and managing your employees and to having a high-functioning team,” says Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., leadership and organizational psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College. Take a genuine interest in your staff, asking questions about their lives and offering info about yourself as well.
Mistake #2: You’re Unclear About Team Goals
As a first-timer, you may not be clear about your own role, let alone those of your team members. This can lead to confusion about what your staff's priorities should be and what everyone is working toward. The result: No one knows what they're supposed to do, and morale and performance start circling the drain.
Overcome It: Take time to understand not only your own goals as an employee, but also those of the company and how you and your team fit into the big picture. Get a handle on this by talking to your own supervisors. Then, be transparent and share what you've learned with the people who report to you. Why? Transparency fosters trust.
“When employees trust their manager and can communicate well with that person, they are more likely to be able to hear the expectations clearly,” says Jessica Sweet, career coach at Wishing Well Coaching. Adds Riggio, “If employees know that you are being straight with them, they can more easily see and accept what is needed for goal attainment and why.”
After setting these goals and defining the “why” and “how,” let each employee develop their own style and approach when it comes to achieving them. “By giving them a voice in the process, it leads to greater commitment to obtaining the goals — the employees come to ‘own’ the objectives,” Riggio says.
Mistake #3: You Don’t Give Clear Direction
Many newbies feel awkward about their sudden authority, so they soften directives, framing instructions as recommendations (for example, “It’d be nice to have that presentation by Monday” instead of stating outright that the deadline for the presentation is Monday).
“It’s uncomfortable to give orders, and so [new managers] find a way to diffuse the discomfort," Sweet explains. “For some managers this may be conscious, while others may be totally unaware that they are doing this.”
Overcome It: Be mindful when you give team members their marching orders, and practice being direct without coming off as curt or aggressive, Sweet advises. That might mean writing cut-to-the-chase emails with bulleted objectives and deadlines, preparing a clear list of to-dos for reports before a meeting, or simply being more aware of the softeners you use to pepper your conversation.
Sweet adds that it’s also important to get to a place where you feel OK about asking for what needs to be done. You're the one with the authority to do so — it's your job now, after all.
Mistake #4: You Don’t Delegate Enough
Find yourself taking on projects that are supposed to be done by team members? You've fallen into a common new-manager trap of trying to do too much yourself. And it's a danger that can sink your performance.
When stressed, people tend to micromanage in a misguided attempt to maintain control and authority, explains industrial/organizational psychologist Brenda Fellows, Ph.D.
Overcome It: After giving your team clear direction about what is required, Fellows recommends going hands-off and trusting that employees will succeed. Be ready to lend an assist if a team member needs help or direction — but only then and not before.
Delegating to subordinates is a skill that goes beyond just doling out assignments, says Riggio. “It’s a little bit like fishing: You give them some line and let them run, but you might also need to reel them in now and then,” he adds.
Mistake #5: You Forget to Give Feedback
You know how athletes are always patting each other on the back after a play? They know that feedback on a teammate's performance is crucial to boosting morale and momentum.
It works the same way with the teammates you manage. According to a Gallup study, 40% of workers became “actively disengaged” when they didn’t receive periodic feedback from their managers. Meanwhile, employees who did hear from their bosses were more likely to be engaged, even if the feedback was negative.
Ruisi suggests that this is another blunder that comes down to Rookie Mistake #1, the desire to be popular. Many first-time managers want to be liked, so they tend to skimp on critiquing their teams. Yet a lack of feedback leaves workers feeling like they're not part of the whole and a little lost at sea, and that can derail progress.
Overcome It: Realize that your employees want and need to know where they stand in order to ace their jobs. The simplest way to do this is to set up periodic check-ins with your reports and come prepared with constructive thoughts — both positive and negative.
And since feedback is beneficial for everyone, don’t forget to ask staffers for their take on how you’re doing. Ruisi suggests asking, How can I help you do your job better? What would you like me to do that I’m not currently doing? What can I do to enhance our working relationship? “[These questions] go a long way in helping the manager improve his performance and improve his relationship with the team,” he says.