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4 management principles a manager should avoid

February 26, 2019

Conventional wisdom on a given subject tends to be widely accepted; after all, people wouldn't say it all the time if it weren't true. But sometimes conventional wisdom doesn't have the data to back it up. For example, despite the conventional wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, studies have shown that having or not having breakfast has no effect when it comes to weight loss or energy throughout the day.

Surprised? (Or, like my breakfast-skipping manager -- validated??) In the same vein, consider a new perspective regarding your managerial skills -- are they based on actual data and repeatable results, or something you’ve just heard so many times you figure it must be true? The answer, as they say, might surprise you.

Here are some accepted principles that, upon closer consideration, you might actually want to avoid if you want to be a successful manager. And unlike skipping breakfast, following these managerial principles can be hugely debilitating to your company culture.

“Have high standards, and expect your employees to meet them.”

Some people believe that good managers are ones that push their teams and demand success -- or else. While there's value in challenging your reports, it’s important to understand that effective management does not mean micromanagement. Often, when a boss with high standards bears down on their direct reports, they ruin their employees’ confidence, hurt their company’s ability to navigate through mistakes and disappointment, encourage suboptimal work, and make it harder for themselves to work as effective leaders. This can be demotivating and hamper productivity throughout the company, but it also makes it hard to build out your company with institutional knowledge by harming retention and recruitment. (Employee turnover is expensive!) Finally, creative innovation dies without psychological safety.

Instead: Be a teacher.

Being a successful manager is less about constantly being on top of your team, and more about creating a supportive environment full of effective communication for them, so they feel they can grow without their manager breathing down their necks. The best leaders are great teachers; rather than constantly pushing, they always encourage learning and self-reflection. They’re still focused on results, but they also understand that process and value of individual growth lead to better results as well. They balance the people management skill of guiding with the emotional intelligence of respecting their reports’ independence -- especially when teaching these reports leadership skills such as mentoring others. They build trust and loyalty in their employees, rather than pushing for better results at any cost.

“Pinpoint the problems, and fix them.”

Many managers, especially new ones, can be tempted to “fix” their team. They focus on weaknesses rather than strengths, figuring that if they help each team member improve, the team overall will get stronger. The big issue with this strategy is that it focuses on the negative rather than appreciating that each team member already has a wide range of skills. While you might think of it as another way to help employees grow, for employees it can be demoralizing to have their manager focus so hard on their flaws. It’s one thing to encourage people to grow their skills; it’s quite another to get them to change their personalities.

Instead: Encourage your employees to use their strengths to their advantage.

While helping your team members reach their full potential isn’t a bad thing, true leaders play to employees’ strengths: they build them up rather than problem-solving their shortcomings. Everyone has flaws, but giving feedback based on personality rather than performance is painful and unlikely to motivate anyone. There’s a big difference between saying, “Try to come up with creative solutions on your own when you bump up against a problem” and “You’re not creative enough, why don’t you work on that?” Your team will enjoy working for you and trust you more if they feel as though you appreciate their skill sets and aren't always scrutinizing everything they do. When you do have to address an issue, frame it as a great opportunity for growth rather than a problem that needs fixing. Finally, don’t alter what’s working fine, even if it’s not the way you would do something: there’s not always one path to a destination, and your reports might be doing something a certain way for a specific reason. You can always get curious and ask why something is handled a specific way, but resist the urge to fix what isn’t broken.

“Be Consistent”

“Be strong and consistent in your points of view,” is sometimes regarded as one of the more basic management skills. Articles containing advice for new managers often go something like, “A manager needs to have a strong point of view: if you constantly flip-flop on decisions, your team will start to lose trust in your ability to strategically lead.” But say you make a call and it’s wrong — that happens, and it's actually a great opportunity for growth. If you ignore the issue, however, and stick to your guns, you’ll seem less like you’re striving to be consistent and more like you’re never willing to change. You can’t be an effective manager if you never evolve. And there’s nothing worse for employees than having a manager who insists on following a strategy that clearly isn’t working.

Instead: Be honest and authentic.

Great managers admit when they’ve made a mistake, and acknowledge that they’re learning, too. Whether you’re a new or more seasoned manager, people will respect your honesty and your effective communication, and recognize this admission as a sign of maturity. Realizing something isn’t working and problem solving isn’t “flip-flopping,” it’s a sign of wisdom and humility— key skills of a good manager.  

“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”

Setting goals at a company can be an essential part of the performance management process -- it helps set clear expectations for your employees, and using frameworks like SMART goals or OKRs can empower and motivate them to meet those expectations. But while tracking individual performance as a team manager helps your reports build the right skills, if you insist on having rigid performance-based or interlocking goals for everyone, it can create a domino effect of problems any time a goal needs to be tweaked. Company and department and manager goals change, and the original circumstances under which the goal was set might change enough so that expectations need to change, too. These can be big or small changes: maybe you expand the team or try out new tools or your company decides to pivot in a big way. The idea of “keeping your eye on the prize” and hitting a big milestone is, in many ways, not the most useful way to look at managing goals for a group of people.

Instead: Stay firm, but flexible.

Giving goals too much operational focus on company policy tends doesn’t tend to be worth the upkeep costs. Rather than sinking time into constructing complicated goals that cascade from upper management down through the company, goals need room to breathe. Focus on setting goals that are aligned, focused, and sure to help employees develop important skills. Goals should be results-based, but not to the point of sacrificing quality or process. Additionally, goals can be process oriented and not attached to a specific “prize” -- an SDR’s goal might be to make a specific number of calls, regardless of the results. In this case, there’s not a prize because it’s about them learning perfecting an essential skill.

Some management principles might seem like conventional wisdom that should be followed, but a closer look will show that they’re not as helpful as they might appear at first glance. While these principles might be rooted in good faith, people management is always evolving. Help your team by supporting them in their growth and building them up rather than focusing only on results or presuming one process fits all -- and show that you’re willing to grow, as well.