6 Mistakes Even The Smartest New Managers Make

What really motivates teams isn’t always obvious, even to bosses with the best intentions.

6 Mistakes Even The Smartest New Managers Make
[Photo: Flickr user Ion Chibzii]

Even new managers with the best of intentions are bound to make mistakes, and it would be so lovely to know what those mistakes are ahead of time, so you can pivot before things take a turn for the secret happy-hour vent session. Enter Lindsay McGregor, a former McKinsey & Company consultant who coauthored Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation.


McGregor got incredibly candid about the mistakes she made as a young manager—or, to use her words, a “hands-off” leader. “I was the type of manager who knew enough to not be toxic, but not enough to be inspiring,” she said. “Yes, I was friendly and asked everybody about how their weekends were, but I thought people wanted autonomy, to be left alone. Turns out, that’s not what creates the highest level of motivation. A team really wants you to be invested in them, and to really help each person figure out what inspires them.” Learn from her common missteps, and you’ll hit the ground running strong from day one:

[Related: How To Be An Awesome Young Manager]

1. Spending Too Much Time On The Footnotes

“On my very first day as a manager, an associate shared a PowerPoint presentation with me to look over, and I spent my time fixing minor grammatical details because I wanted it to be perfect. I spent almost no time on the actual idea that was being presented. I forgot that while yes, I was there to help improve the quality of the work, what really motivates people and what improves the quality of work is someone who inspires better thinking. Someone who brings new ideas to the table, who pushes the thinking forward, who helps everyone learn and grow—and that’s the most fun part of the work for everybody.”

[Related: 4 Easy Ways To Feel Happier At Work]

2. Making The Team Run Like Clockwork

“On a project that I managed, we had to asses three new investment ideas a week, which is a lot, and so to get through it all I was really focused on all of the tactical pieces of the team. I set up a daily schedule, held a huddle every morning and every evening to check on our progress, made sure all the right meetings were on the calendar, and sent lots of emails to everybody about the plans for the week. When you’re a new manager, being really on top of all the tactical processes helps you feel in control, but I was clamping down on the process so much and making it so predictable that I wasn’t leaving any room for the team to explore unexpected new ideas or to be creative. I think we probably missed a few big ideas because we were too married to the plan. Be comfortable with the fact that you won’t be able to control every detail. Instead, you need to create the opportunity for other people to innovate and experiment as the world changes more and more.”

3. Using The Wrong Reasons To Explain A Task

“When explaining the rationale for doing something, I would often say, ‘The reason we need to do this slide or this financial model is because so-and-so wants it that way,” whether that be somebody more senior to me or the client. That’s a really uninspiring reason for doing something. It’s just the quickest, easiest way to tell somebody, ‘We really need to do this.’ I should have always tied the reason for doing something back to the impact it would have. So not, ‘We have to turn this presentation from PowerPoint into Microsoft Word because Jack wants it that way,’ but ‘We will have the most impact if we tell stories, and that’s going to work really well with this client because they have a long tradition of storytelling.’ I didn’t spend nearly enough time explaining the true purpose of the work, the context around the work, and the impact it would have so that the team could also realize what was going to have the most impact.”


4. Not Thinking About Each Person’s “Sense Of Play”

“Play is when people work because they enjoy the activity itself. People often experience play in their hobbies—they love mixing music, or creating Pinterest boards, or writing code. When I first started to lead, I didn’t spend enough time figuring out what each person really enjoyed, and adapting the plan to reflect those interests. I distributed the work in a way that I considered fair—each person had one idea to asses per week—but it would’ve been better to think about what topics were most interesting to each person and which piece of the investment process they liked the most. The impact of your team is going to be much stronger if you think in that way.”

5. Not Letting People See The Impact Of Their Work

“It’s pretty common in the workplace where a junior person will do a lot of the work but then not actually get to come to the meeting. That’s really problematic because you can’t see the impact of your work or feel the purpose of what you’re doing. And it affects your ability experiment; if you do an experiment but you can’t see whether it works or not, you can’t learn. Later in my career, I became a lot more proactive about advocating for people to come to meetings with me.”

6. Assuming That You Have To Be Better At Everything

“There’s a really interesting backstory behind McKinsey’s role of engagement manager, which is that it used to be a rotating role. Somebody different took on that role in each project, and it was because they realized that the leader was somebody who helped provide structure and clear obstacles, but it didn’t have to be the person who was necessarily better than everybody else at everything. It’s a great situation when your teammates have strengths that are beyond yours—you’ll be able to achieve a lot more. You just have to think about your role differently. Your role is not necessarily to correct their work; your role is to help clear obstacles, to create a process that balances the right amount of tactical performance and adaptable performance, and to help each person figure out where they find play and potential in their work. Everybody has a coach. Serena Williams has a coach! So just because someone on your team is more experienced than you or is better at something than you doesn’t mean you don’t have a really valuable role.”

This article originally appeared on Levo and is reprinted with permission.