The 9 leadership mistakes you don’t know you’re making as a new manager

Don’t accidentally become a bad boss by overlooking these often imperceptible leadership mistakes.

9 mistakes to avoid

I’ve never met you, but I’m going to make a guess about you:  You’re making leadership mistakes you don’t even know about. 

I don’t mean to sound presumptuous (or crass!). I’m in part reflecting on personal experience – I’ve made a boatload of leadership mistakes, myself.

More objectively, I’m citing probability: Gallup’s research on millions of managers over the past 7 years revealed that companies choose the wrong manager 82% of the time. And if that’s not disconcerting enough, they found only 1 in 10 managers possess what they describe “the natural talent to manage”. 

In short, the likelihood that you, as a new manager coming out of the gate, are inherently endowed with the perfect blend of traits, experience and skills to be a great manager… Let’s get real. It’s unbelievably low.  

Such is the “curse” of a new manager. Leadership is not as intuitive as we’re eager to believe. What we’d like to think work don’t actually work. And the only way to find out things don’t work is to mess them up pretty badly. 

Or, is that the only way?

Based on the research we’ve done over the past 5 years with 15,000+ people, and interviewing hundreds of CEOs, executives and managers, I’ve pulled together the mistakes most leaders tend to overlook. These are the most dangerous kinds of leadership mistakes – the mistakes that unintentionally hurt our team, without us ever knowing.

My hope is to spare you some of the self-inflicted suffering I and many other leaders have kicked themselves about, after-the-fact. So, without further ado, here are the 9 most common, imperceptible leadership mistakes to avoid:

Mistake #1:  You think building trust is about team-building.

When we want to build trust as a leader, we often resort to team-building activities:  Company retreats, informal lunches, recognizing employees publicly for a job well done, etc. However, in our survey of almost 600 people, we found that team-building activities were in fact rated as the least effective way to build trust. What was rated as most effective? Being vulnerable as a leader, sharing your intention, and following through on your commitment. In other words, trust isn’t about building rapport – it’s about you making clear why you’re doing something, and then acting on it. 

Mistake #2: You think your team members generally know what’s going on.

You’re in Slack, you’re on calls, you’re in team meetings… You do a ton of communicating and sharing of info as a leader with your team. What’s not to know? Well, a lot apparently. When we asked 3,197 people across 701 companies through Know Your Team, “Are there things you don’t know about the company that you feel you should know? 55% people said, “Yes, there are things I don’t know about the company that I feel like I should know.” Furthermore, in a separate survey we ran with 355 people in the fall of 2018, we found that 91% of employees said their manager could improve how they share information. Specifically, 42% of employees wanted their managers to communicate more regularly with them and 38% said they wish their managers shared more of their decisions and the reasons behind why they make them. While you might feel you’re communicating enough as a leader, your team feels otherwise.

Mistake #3:  You believe being busy as a leader is good.

You’re getting things done. You’re making things happen. When you’re busy as a leader, you can be tempted to believe you’re doing a good job. However, in leadership, that’s not the case.  I interviewed Michael Lopp, VP of Engineering of Slack, who underscored this for me: “If you’re too busy doing the actual work, as a manager, that’s a huge mistake.” The best leaders help employees navigate what’s fuzzy, provide structure around about what needs to happen, and reveal why the work matters. But you can’t do that as a leader if your nose is in your email inbox all day, or you’re out traveling to visit clients every week.

Mistake #4:  You sort-of prepare for your one-on-one meetings (when you have the time).

Did you prepare for the last one-on-one meeting you had with a direct report? Be honest 🙂  In a recent survey we conducted of 1,182 managers and 838 employees, we found that only 24% of employees believed their manager was well prepared for their one-on-one. The other 76% percent were managers who were seen as only “somewhat prepared”, “not prepared” or “not prepared at all.” Ouch. When you show up to a one-on-one meeting without a clear agenda or set of questions, it shows. You waste everyone’s time and squander a valuable opportunity to support your direct report. Here are some recommendations for how to prepare for a one-on-one meeting as a manager.

Mistake #5:  You try to solve the problem yourself, because you’re the domain expert.

Someone comes to you with a problem. As a leader, you roll up your sleeves and dive in head first to resolve it. After all, you’re the one with the most experience in this particular domain. It makes sense to do what you’re good at… Right? Wrong. Peldi Guilizzoni, CEO of Balsamiq shared this counterintuitive insight:  When you focus doing always on what you’re good at, the team never learns to get good at it themselves. “Instead,” shared Peldi, “focus on delegating training and making sure that everybody gets good at doing those things.”

Mistake #6:  You think transparency all the time is good.

From making salaries public within the company to open-book management, the concept of transparency in the workplace is more popular than ever. Understandably (and rightfully) so. However, transparency can backfire if you don’t hold two concepts in view:  Transparency requires context, and transparency is on a spectrum. Des Traynor, co-founder of Intercom, dispelled critical wisdom on this topic, explaining:  “The key thing people forget in transparency is it’s not about opening up the Google Drive and making sure that everyone can read everything – it’s about transparency of context as well.”

Mistake #7:  You think you communicate the vision in your team well.

Vision is crucial. But do you know how crucial?  According to our survey of 355 managers and employees, respondents said vision is #1 piece of information a manager should be sharing (45% of people said this). And yet, when we asked 2,932 people across 618 companies through Know Your Team, “If someone asked you to describe the vision of the company, would a clear answer immediately come to mind?” almost a third of employees (29%) squarely said, “No.” As a leader, we must thoughtfully reconsider how to help more folks answer “Yes” to that crucial question.

Mistake #8: You think you’re giving enough feedback. 

The barrage of feedback seems endless. You’re doing one-on-one meetings, employee surveys, annual performance reviews. Yet, despite this, in our data collected through Know Your Team, we found that 80% of employees want more feedback about their performance (1,468 employees were asked about this across 138 companies). And yes, these are folks who are already using Know Your Team as a tool to get feedback! What it illustrates is a strong desire from your team to receive even more critiques, suggestions, and ideas – the bad along with the good – about what they can be doing better. You might think you’re giving enough of it, but you could be giving even more.

Mistake #9: You’re nice. 

Don’t be an asshole, by all means. But don’t overcompensate by focusing solely on being nice. When we’re preoccupied with seeming likable instead of fair, when we optimize for feel-good conversations instead of honest ones — we damage our teams. Hiten Shah, founder of Kissmetrics, Crazy Egg and FYI, was emphatic about this point to me, describing how when you overly prioritize being nice, “there’s a level of toxic culture that develops that’s hard to see, especially on a remote team.” Instead of seeking to be nice, we should seek to be honest, rigorous, and consistent.


Was my guess not far off?  Have you found yourself making one (or a few) of these leadership mistakes, unknowingly? 

If you tensed your mouth and nodded a “Yes”, don’t be discouraged. Leadership isn’t about avoiding every mistake in the book – that’s impossible. Rather, the best leaders are unendingly curious to know what their mistakes could be, and deeply rigorous about trying to spot them in advance the next time around.

This is how you get better. It doesn’t always feel pleasant, but that’s the perilous process of gaining new knowledge: It’s bumpy, it’s uncomfortable, it’s frustrating, and, at times, humiliating. Rarely do you learn how to ride a bike and not get a scuffed up knee or two along the way.

Seeing your leadership mistakes for what they are – these nine in particular – is part of that learning. If you want to be a better leader, here is where you start.

The 3 most effective ways to build trust as a leader

Based on data from 597 people, the best ways to build trust as a leader aren’t what you think they are.

How do you build trust as a leader? The answer seems intuitive enough.

For many of us, we hold company off-sites and run team-building activities. Informal lunches, monthly social get-togethers, and one-on-one meetings are part of how we build trust at work.

We also thank our team publicly and give employee recognition for a job well done. And, we strive to be transparent with company information during all-team meetings.

These are among the most popular ways to build trust because they work… Right?

Wrong.

To my surprise, in our survey we ran this past fall with 597 managers and employees, these three ways to build trust were in fact viewed as the least effective by employees.

Specifically, these were the 3 least effective ways to build trust as a leader:

Company retreats + team-building activities.

Only 1% of managers and employees who responded to the survey said that this was the most effective way to build trust. This is fascinating, given the amount of money and energy many companies spend planning company off-sites and team-building activities.

Thanking your team and giving recognition.

Only 4% of people said that this was the most effective to build trust in a team. While this shouldn’t imply you should never thank your team, it goes to show there’s more to building trust than doling out compliments.

Being transparent with company info.

Only 10% of managers and employees stated that this was the most effective way to build trust in a team. No doubt that transparency is important in a company – if you want your team to be able to make the same decisions as you, they need access to the same information as you. But when it comes to building trust, perhaps it’s not as effective as we’d imagined it to be.

Now, just because these methods are not viewed as “most effective” for building trust at work doesn’t mean you should stop doing these things, all together. Rather, they may accomplish other worthy goals in the organization. (For example, being transparent with company info is helpful for alignment in a team.)

So what is most effective when it comes to building trust?

From our survey, here’s what 597 managers and employees said were the most effective ways to build trust:

#1: Show vulnerability as a leader.

Twenty-eight percent of people said that being vulnerable and admitting your shortcomings as a leader was the most effective way to build trust. For both employees and managers in the survey, they remarked how being vulnerable with your weaknesses and mistakes demonstrated empathy: The more empathetic someone was, the more likely they were to trust them. One person in the survey in particular remarked how their manager “needs to show more empathy,” and that “morally he is probably a good person but there are some times when it’s unclear if he actually has empathy due to challenges expressing it.”

#2: Communicate the intent behind your actions.

Twenty-six percent of people said making your intentions behind your actions clear was the most effective way to build trust. This makes sense, given that intent is such a primary part of the definition of trust, to begin with. Communicating the intent behind your actions means being open about why you’re saying something, and why decisions are made – including your decisions to not act on something. Be opaque about why you’re changing your mind, or fail to express why you’re giving feedback to someone and it can wreck havoc on your work relationship.

#3: Follow through on commitments.

Eighteen percent of employees expressed that simply following through on commitments was the most effective ways to build trust. This seems to be especially powerful given that we found that 48% of employees believed that the company has been all talk and no action on something lately – and 28% of employees said their manager has been all talk and no action. Similarly, 61% of managers believed that their direct reports had been all talk and no action on something lately.

In short, trust is not rapport. Trust is not team-building. It’s not about getting people to like you. And it’s not about getting people to just “feel good” about you or the company.

Trust is your intentions and your behavior. It’s making it clear why you’re doing something, being honest about it, and then following through with it.

You can hold as many company retreats as you’d like… But if you’re not vulnerable during those moments, your team won’t trust you.

You can be congratulatory with your team every week… But if you don’t follow through on your commitments, your words ring hollow.

You can share company financials far and wide… But if you don’t reveal your intentions about what you’ll do with that information, your team will be skeptical of you.

Align what you do with what you say. Your word and your action builds trust. Nothing else does.


PS: If you’re looking for a helpful system to build trust more authentically, you may want to check out Know Your Team – our software to help you become a better leader. In Know Your Team, we give you tools and resources specifically around building trust so you can put much of what I shared here directly into practice. Check it out here.