Conventional wisdom tends to be widely accepted. After all, people wouldn't say it all the time if it wasn't true.
But sometimes conventional wisdom just isn't backed by data. For example, despite the conventional wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, studies show that skipping it has zero impact on energy or weight loss.
In the same vein, consider the management principles you've heard throughout your career. While adages like "keep your eye on the prize" might look good on inspirational posters, they aren't actually backed by data. Unlike breakfast, avoiding these managerial principles might actually make a difference.
1. “Set high standards.”
Some people believe that good managers are ones that push their teams and demand success. While there's value in challenging your reports, it’s important to understand that effective management does not mean micromanagement.
When a boss with high standards bears down on their reports, they ruin employees’ confidence, hurt their company’s ability to navigate through mistakes and make it harder for themselves to lead. This can be demotivating and hamper productivity throughout the company. What's more, creative innovation dies without psychological safety.
Instead, be a teacher.
Being a successful manager is less about being on top of your team and more about creating a supportive environment. The best leaders are great teachers. Rather than constantly pushing, they always encourage learning and self-reflection.
These managers are still focused on results, but they understand that individual growth leads to better business outcomes in the long term. They balance the people management skill of guiding with respecting their reports’ independence. These managers build trust and loyalty, rather than pushing for better results at any cost.
2. “Pinpoint problems and fix them.”
Many managers, especially new ones, are tempted to “fix” their teams. They focus on weaknesses rather than strengths, figuring that if they help each direct report improve, the team will get stronger. While you might think of it as another way to help employees grow, for some it can be demoralizing to have their manager hone in on their flaws. It’s one thing to encourage people to grow their skills — it’s another to get them to change who they are.
Instead, encourage employees to use their strengths.
While helping your team members reach their full potential isn’t a bad thing, true leaders play to employees’ strengths. Everyone has flaws, but giving feedback based on personality rather than performance is painful and unlikely to motivate anyone.
Your team will enjoy working for you if they feel like you appreciate their skills and aren't scrutinizing everything they do. When you have to address an issue, frame it as an 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. You can always get curious and ask why something is handled a specific way, but resist the urge to fix what isn’t broken.
3. “Be consistent.”
Being strong and consistent is sometimes regarded as a basic management skill. But what if you make the wrong call? That's actually a great opportunity for growth. If you ignore the issue and stick to your guns, you’ll seem less like you’re striving to be consistent and more like you’re trying to save face. You can’t be an effective manager if you never evolve.
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.
4. “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
Frameworks like SMART goals or OKRs can empower and motivate direct reports to meet expectations. But 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 goals can change as business needs evolve. These can be big or small changes. Maybe you lost a few key contributors or the company went through a major pivot. The idea of “keeping your eye on the prize” and hitting an unrealistic target can be more harmful than inspiring.
Instead, stay firm but flexible.
Rather than sinking time into building 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 can help employees stretch and develop. Goals should be results-based, but not to the point of sacrificing quality or process. As a manager, know when you need to be honest about whether a goal is actually achievable.
Some management principles might seem like conventional wisdom, but a closer look will show that they’re not as helpful as they might appear. 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 don't forget to show that you’re willing to grow, too.