6 People Managing Mistakes

As the New Year draws near, it seems that everyone is putting together lists of the top ten something of 2002. I am going to break with tradition, but only a little. I have compiled the top six mistakes I encountered as business leaders tried to engage in the complex task of managing the people in their organization. Let’s keep the tradition of the countdown. 

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Mistake # 6: The micro-manager

The micromanagers I encountered in 2002 were unable to take advantage of their work teams. This problem is even more serious when the work of the team involves the development of intellectual and creative products. The micromanagers also have difficulty moving from tactical to strategic thinking. In other words, they tend to focus on the tasks that need to be done rather than looking ahead to develop and direct the team to move toward the future. 

This is the most common mistake I encountered and a problem most frequently found in new managers, particularly those who were previously highly skilled technicians. In some companies the only avenue to reward outstanding work is to promote the employee. This may turn out to be a job change that hurts both the employee and the company. The technician no longer has time to do what he or she really loves while the company gets a manager who finds it difficult to work effectively in this role. 

Solution: It may be advantageous to create positions like “lead technician.” The lead technician is acknowledged as outstanding among his or her peers and rewarded with higher salary or benefits without being thrust into a management position. Alternatively, new managers need leadership training. The skills are not easily acquired on the job. Effective training often includes a coach or mentor who can work one-on-one with the new manager to help him or her apply the skills to the job. 

Mistake # 5: Tightening the training budget. 

As the economy slowed, many companies tried to save money by cutting budgets for continuing education and training. This meant that seminars or discussion roundtables or networking opportunities were no longer funded by the organization.  The result is a stagnation of employees. I also found employees who interpreted the lack of commitment to training as an indication that their job might be in jeopardy. If the organization is unwilling to train me, they reasoned, it may be because they are getting ready to lay me off. Several of these employees began a job search and left the company. It is far more expensive to replace an employee than to offer additional training to one. 

The skill of the workforce is critical for competing in a slow economy. The employees are at the forefront of contact with the customers. It is this contact that sets the tone for the organization. When your employees are professional, enthusiastic and knowledgeable, it is a competitive edge. If employees are performing at only the average for the industry, they present an average face for the company. This is not where successful companies want to be during this economic time. 

Solution: The most successful companies during an economic slowdown rarely cut training budgets. The slowdown is an opportunity to invest in your human resources. The business is not growing or expanding during this time but the skill of your workforce can be deepened. This is one of the best chances to train because the work is less intense so it is easier for key personnel to be away from the company. This is a great learning environment for them because there is less pressure to be away from work responsibilities. It is a great time for the organization because the workforce can be gaining expertise without a great backlog of work. 

Mistake #4: Cutting costs as the sole strategy. 

It can be important to look at costs when budgets are tight. The problem here is making it the only strategy. Psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “If you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail.” Single strategies are rarely effective. Many single strategies are doomed to fail, but this executive was really creating problems for his organization. In this case the result was plummeting morale among the staff.  In his “do more with less” approach, he unintentionally created a situation in which his employees did not have the supplies they needed to do their job. This resulted in fewer sales so he tried to cut costs even more dramatically. It became a negative spiral. Each time he cut costs, the staff was less able to do their job. This led to a tighter budget and another round of cuts. His efforts to establish control were worsening the situation he was trying to address. 

The single strategy had another unanticipated side effect. The staff had ideas for increasing revenue that were not considered because he was so focused on cutting costs. Increasing revenue would require some up front investment for the company. It also seemed risky. He thought of the cost cutting strategy as a safer alternative, but did not recognize the effects it had on his staff because of decreasing morale and a growing conviction that their ideas were not important. 

Solution: In today’s economy every decision carries risk. Budgets are tight and the excess spending of the 1990’s cannot be sustained. It is important to look carefully at expenditures. At the same time, one of the most successful keys to good management is to provide your workforce with the tools and supplies they need to do a good job. It is equally important to listen to employees who are also committed to making the organization successful. Several intellects will be far more intelligent than any one alone. 


Mistake # 3: Delaying decisions. 

The interviews were completed, the resume facts were checked, and the other managers had been consulted. He delayed making the decision to formally offer the job. He was certain this was the right decision, but he needed to check one more time. The next morning the international office imposed a hiring freeze. Inaction had cost him the prospective employee who had a new perspective and a new approach that held much promise for the next year. Indecision cost him dearly. 

Indecision increases with stressful circumstances. It is tempting to take one more look at the data. It is tempting to ask for more input or wait for a better option to come along. Most people assume that there is one right decision out there that must be discovered. In truth, the most important element of decision making takes place after the decision is made, by implementing it in a way that makes it work. 

Solution: Although this event may seem to be an unfortunate piece of bad luck, the need to make good decisions rapidly is a fact of the global economy. The best leaders need to avoid both indecision and impulsivity. Balance is critical. Making decisions are among the most important of managerial tasks. It is important to accept that 100% certainty is not possible in this world. Even the scientific method only demands a 95% probability to accept a result as supportive of a theory. Real world decisions often have to be made with inadequate data and under a time limitation. It is important to focus an equal amount of energy to making the decision work as to making the decision in the first place. 

Mistake # 2: The workplace bully. 

There are many management theories that are based on the belief that the best manager must establish his or her power through fear. If employees fear you they will work harder to do what you say. As a result, the CEO took the approach that the most effective management team meetings focused on embarrassing managers in front of their peers. He believed that this would result in everyone else paying close attention to what is wrong and being certain they would not make the same mistakes. 

Unfortunately there were two troublesome outcomes from this “bullying.” Managers were indeed much more cautious. They were careful not to do anything for which they might be singled out. They tried no new ideas, did not innovate and a company that was at the forefront of its industry quickly began to fall back to being no better than average. At the same time, the managers that were recipients of the bullying of the CEO felt justified in bullying their direct reports. Those employees felt little remorse when they bullied their customers. Everyone in the organization was learning from the CEO’s example. 

Solution: It is important to give accurate feedback if we are trying to change behavior. However accurate negative feedback can be delivered in a private setting that helps the individual to take the information with appropriate seriousness. The message to the larger group can be relayed without making anyone a specific example. In addition, accurate feedback also includes giving feedback on what someone is doing right. In the absence of such feedback the individual make assume that what they are doing right is a) unimportant, b) not noticed, or c) wrong but the CEO is so frustrated as to no longer see it as worth his or her time to say anything. It is human nature to search for a negative interpretation of events in the absence of data that indicates the event is positive. 

Mistake #1: Lying. 

I was not involved with anyone who was directly associated with the scandals that hit the headlines from Enron or World Com, etc. Yet managers who lie seem to be epidemic. It may take the form of telling different individuals what they want to hear despite the inaccuracies, or it may be twisting or withholding information to improve his or her political position. Despite the fact that it can be difficult to prove, employees who think their manager lies to them will have a difficult time trusting that manager ever again. 
As a result the manager loses his or her most important means to influence the workforce in a positive way. The most important quality of effective leadership is the ability to articulate a compelling vision that directs, inspires and energizes the workforce.  If there is mistrust, there is resistance to the directions the company is attempting to take. “People leave managers, not companies,” says Marcus Buckingham of the Gallup organization. 

Solution:  The answer is straightforward, be honest. That means to be painstakingly honest with the workforce, even when it is difficult. The best managers are willing to take responsibility for mistakes they make. When the company is struggling with bad news, it does not help the employee or the company to protect them from that reality.