Mistakes Managers Make

Another way to understand what it takes to be a manager is to look at the mistakes managers make. In other words, we can learn just as much from what managers shouldn’t do as from what they should do. Exhibit 1.6 lists the top 10 mistakes managers make.

Several studies of U.S. and British managers have compared “arrivers,” or managers who made it all the way to the top of their companies, with “derailers,” managers who were successful early in their careers but were knocked off the fast track by the time they reached the middle to upper levels of management. 77 The researchers found that there were only a few differences between arrivers and derailers. For the most part, both groups were talented and both groups had weaknesses. But what distinguished derailers from arrivers was that derailers possessed two or more “fatal flaws” with respect to the way that they managed people! Although arrivers were by no means perfect, they usually had no more than one fatal flaw or had found ways to minimize the effects of their flaws on the people with whom they worked.

The number one mistake made by derailers was that they were insensitive to others by virtue of their abrasive, intimidating, and bullying management style. The authors of one study described a manager who walked into his subordinate’s office and interrupted a meeting by saying, “I need to see you.” When the subordinate tried to explain that he was not available because he was in the middle of a meeting, the manager barked, “I don’t give a damn. I said I wanted to see you now.”78 Not surprisingly, only 25 percent of derailers were rated by others as being good with people, compared to 75 percent of arrivers.

Even the U.S. Army recognizes that insensitivity to others is a serious problem. All officers who have been promoted to the rank of general are sent to the Brigadier General Training Conference, known informally in the Army as the “charm school.” The basic goal of this training is simple: to encourage new generals to get in touch with and lose their “inner jerk.” Lt. Col. Howard Olsen, who runs the training, tells the officers, “Each and every one of you has something that makes you a jerk. Some of you have more than one. I know. I’ve talked to you.”

The second mistake was that derailers were often cold, aloof, or arrogant. Although this sounds like insensitivity to others, it has more to do with derailed managers being so smart, so expert in their areas of knowledge, that they treated others with contempt because they weren’t experts, too. For example, the telecommunications company SBC

called in an industrial psychologist to counsel its vice president of human resources because she had “been blamed for ruffling too many feathers at the company.”80 Interviews with the vice president’s coworkers and subordinates revealed that they thought she was brilliant, was “smarter and faster than other people,” “generates a lot of ideas,” and “loves to deal with complex issues.” Unfortunately, these smarts were accompanied by a cold, aloof, and arrogant management style. The people she worked with complained that she does “too much too fast,” treats coworkers with “disdain,” “impairs teamwork,” “doesn’t always show her warm side,” and has “burned too many bridges.”

The third and fourth mistakes made by the derailers, betraying a trust and being overly ambitious, reflect a lack of concern for coworkers and subordinates. Betraying a trust doesn’t mean being dishonest. Instead, it means making others look bad by not doing what you said you would do when you said you would do it. That mistake, in itself, is not fatal because managers and their workers aren’t machines. Tasks go undone in every company every single business day. There’s always too much to do and not enough time, people, money, or resources to do it. The fatal betrayal of trust is failing to inform others when things will not be done on time. This failure to admit mistakes, quickly inform others of the mistakes, take responsibility for the mistakes, and then fix them without blaming others clearly distinguished the behavior of derailers from arrivers.

The fourth mistake, as mentioned above, was being overly political and ambitious. Managers who always have their eye on their next job rarely establish more than superficial relationships with peers and coworkers. In their haste to gain credit for successes that would be noticed by upper management, they make the fatal mistake of treating people as though they don’t matter.

The fatal mistakes of being unable to delegate, build a team, and staff effectively indicate that many derailed managers were unable to make the most basic transition to managerial work: to quit being hands-on doers and get work done through others. Two things go wrong when managers make these mistakes. First, when managers meddle in decisions that their subordinates should be making—when they can’t stop being doers—they alienate the people who work for them. Second, because they are trying to do their subordinates’ jobs in addition to their own, managers who fail to delegate will not have enough time to do much of anything well. Jo DeMars, president of DeMars & Associates, experienced both problems by closely micromanaging every detail at the company she founded. Although this worked when the company was small, it became a source of stress as the company grew. Employee Natalie Fleury said of DeMars, “She’d delegate but she’d still want control.” As a result, her staffers became so reluctant to make their own decisions that they asked DeMars to approve almost everything. Soon, DeMars admits, “I found myself getting so wrapped up in the day-to-day tasks that I couldn’t be strategic. . . . If someone came in with a wrinkled shirt, I’d think, ‘Well, this “business casual” just doesn’t work, and I’ve got to find another solution.’ A lot of it was making mountains of molehills, and when you do that, you suddenly have a mountain range in your life.” In the end, employee morale suffered, and DeMars’s health deteriorated from the stress of trying to do too much.

Source: M. W. McCall, Jr. & M. M. Lombardo, “What Makes a Top Executive?” Psychology

Today, February 1983, 26–31.


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