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10 Management Traps -- and How to Avoid Them

April 12, 2011
If you have fallen into any of these common management mistakes, here is some advice from veteran management advisers on how to recognize and correct them.

To err is human, and in today's world of electronic hyperscrutiny, it has never been more difficult for business executives to keep their mistakes out of the public eye. But beyond the major miscalculations that can find their way onto the front page of The Wall Street Journal or the lead on MSNBC, managers throughout industry repeat many smaller and unintentional mistakes every day. These mistakes of judgment and perception entail the blocking and tackling of organizations. No individual mistake may be crippling, but multiplied throughout an organization, day after day, they can have a tremendous impact on company productivity, morale and competitiveness.

One reason these mistakes occur so frequently is that most companies don't offer management training or don't offer it on a consistent basis. "It is usually the subject matter expertise that gets managers promoted, not the leadership expertise," notes Marc Hafer, CEO of Simpler Consulting, a global lean management consulting firm. "Companies don't invest in that kind of development. Even if they had the inclination, they wouldn't quite know where to start in some cases."

Mark Hafer: "It is usually the subject matter expertise that gets managers promoted, not the leadership expertise."
IndustryWeek asked some leading business advisers and teachers to share their observations on the most common management traps that company leaders and managers fall into, and what they can do to avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over.

1. Not 'Nipping it in the Bud'

Whether you are a new supervisor or an executive, says Michael Denisoff, the CEO and founder of Denisoff Consulting Group, when you see something or someone slipping, it is important to deal with it as soon as you observe a problem. Rarely does an issue resolve itself. In fact, issues will generally always degrade.

Don't worry about making a mountain out of a molehill, advises Michael McIntyre, director of the Professional MBA Program at the University of Tennessee. "Address it calmly, directly and with a helpful intent. Feedback is usually appreciated and an early course correction is much easier than a late one."

While it's natural for many of us to avoid confrontation, hoping that things will magically get better is not a sound strategy. "Managers should make sure they do what Sheriff Andy Taylor from the Andy Griffith show used to say: 'Nip it in the bud,'" says Denisoff. "The fix is much easier when done early."

2. Squelching the Flow of Bad News

Do you or your reports shoot the messenger when he or she brings you bad news? If so, warns John Hamm, management coach and author of "Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership," you can be sure that the messenger's priority will be to protect his hide, not bring you the information you need.

Excellent leaders, says Hamm, should work hard to establish that what they want is honest feedback and the unvarnished truth.

"We must install a confidence and a trust that leaders in the organization value the facts, the truth and the speed of delivery, not the judgments or interpretations of 'good' or 'bad' and that messengers are valued, not shot," says Hamm. "Very few efforts will yield the payback associated with improving the speed and accuracy of the information you need most to make difficult or complex decisions."

3. Doing Drop-Down Work

Are you doing the work called for in your current job or are you doing the work that you mastered in your previous assignment? For many managers, the temptation is to take the promotion but keep doing what is familiar. "The comfort zone is my last job and the new one is usually less comfortable," say Jamie Flinchbaugh, a lean consultant and contributing editor to IndustryWeek. "So the president does the work that the VPs should be doing and the VPs are doing work that plant managers should be doing and so on. They 'drop down' a level to do the comfortable work instead of the right work."

John Hamm: "You can't treat the people you have as if you own them and they'll always remember why they joined you."
Flinchbaugh said once this issue is recognized, it is important to clarify roles. Companies can use tools such as a responsibility assignment matrix, or RACI matrix, that spells out roles in terms of Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed. Notes Flinchbaugh: "It is as important to design people out of the process as designing people in to the process."

4. Spending Too Much Time on a Problem Child

A common trap for managers is to spend more and more of their time with an underperforming employee, says Denisoff. If they are not careful, managers can spend more than 80% of their time with their problem child.

"When this happens, they are minimizing the time they are dedicating to the business and, more importantly, neglecting the people on their team who are performing," he notes. "Uncorrected, this will lead to your performers leaving the team, decreasing levels of engagement and motivation for the rest of the team, and some performers lower their productivity due to disillusionment or simply because they are vying for some attention."

If an underperforming employee can't be brought up to speed, it's important to cut them loose, adds McIntyre. "A manager's most valuable asset is time, and that time should be invested in high-return activities. Ultimately, a manager will get a higher return from focusing on high-performing employees than lower-performing employees."

5. Delaying Decisions Until it is Too Late

Not making a decision is almost always worse than making a bad decision, says Hamm, who has spent much of his career in the warp-speed environment of Silicon Valley. Barring a truly ill-advised or catastrophic decision, he stresses, bad decisions at least keep the organization moving in pace with changing events -- and thus can often be rectified by a course correction.

While not making a decision at all may seem the safe choice, he observes, it can strip an organization of its momentum and potentially leave it playing catch-up in a competitive situation.

Hamm says excellent leaders pursue decision-making because the speed of an organization can determine its destiny and they are "haunted by the fear that somewhere in the organization a critical decision is being left orphaned and unmade."

6. Letting Employee Enthusiasm Fizzle

Hamm calls this a "dangerous oversight" on the part of leaders. "It is sort of the 'take your wife for granted' problem. You were courting her very hard, bringing her flowers and willing to do anything to have her marry you," he explains. "Then after you're married, you treat her like hired help."

Managers should show as much appreciation for their existing employees as they do for the new recruit they just brought in. "You can't treat the people you have as if you own them and they'll always remember why they joined you," Hamm says. "You have to keep re-signing people up emotionally. If you are working for an organization that has a meaningful mission in front of it, you have to do it."

Michael McIntyre: If you don't delegate, you limit your own impact and you limit the growth of your people.
In "Unusually Excellent," Hamm cites the case of a technology company that used product introductions as opportunities to re-enroll and re-energize its employees. "So at every new product event the senior team created homemade motivational videos, handed out T-shirts and took the opportunity to remind the entire team about the vision and mission of Acme -- and how fun it is to change the world," he writes, noting that as a result of these efforts, "Turnover was ultra-low, morale stayed high, and the company had a home-run outcome."

7. Failing to Delegate

There are three major reasons managers "just do it" rather than delegate, says the University of Tennessee's McIntyre. First, people crave control and predictability. If they do the job themselves, they know it will get done and done the way they expect. Second, people like to demonstrate their competence and expertise, so it is fun for them to do it. And third, they simply don't take time to delegate tasks and responsibilities.

The problem, McIntyre points out, is that if you don't delegate, you limit your own impact and you limit the growth of your people.

Denisoff said he often hears people rationalize their failure to delegate by saying, "I tried delegating this or that task and it just didn't work." In fact, this is a reflection of their inability to delegate effectively. Echoing McIntyre, he says that managers working extra long hours catching up on work that they should be delegating run the risk of burning out and, more importantly, fail to strategically lead the team, which is the very essence of the job description.

8. Losing Touch

There is an old management adage that states that a good leader should never ask someone to do something that they have never done before. But in truth, Denisoff points out, good leadership goes beyond this. As people get promoted it is too easy to forget the reality of the frontline worker. He says that is why the television show "Undercover Boss" is resonating with so many people these days.

"The trap here is to get so busy with the demands of leadership that you lose touch with the realities of the business at ground level," says Denisoff. "This results not only in poor decision-making because of a skewed perception of the business but also the loss of engagement and loyalty of the very people who are executing the plan. Without them everything comes to a halt."

9. Turning People into Cogs

With so many deadlines and pressures on managers, it is an easy trap to see their workers as cogs in a machine. This often happens very subtly without malice. This is particularly true in the manufacturing environment, says Denisoff, because of the constant pressure to deliver and because by its very nature it is a "mechanical" environment.

"When you turn people into things, you take away their ability to truly contribute, be creative and go above and beyond," he says. "Employees do their best work when what they are doing is meaningful and connected to a larger purpose. It is important not to miss the opportunity to communicate to employees why what they are doing is important and its context within the bigger picture."

10. Giving Only Negative Feedback

Two primary motivators are feeling competent and valued, notes McIntyre. Heavy negative feedback undermines both of those feelings.

Good managers constantly are giving feedback to their reports, Denisoff says. It should be a continuous loop, sometimes formal and sometimes informal. However some managers get into the habit of only giving feedback when it is constructive or corrective. This is problematic on a few levels, he warns.

"First, the good behaviors are not being reinforced through positive feedback and may start to diminish. Second, only getting corrective feedback quells employees' willingness to think out of the box and be innovative. If someone constantly gets kicked in the gut they are not likely to think of new ideas," Denisoff says. "Lastly when anyone, even the most resilient of us, receives only negative feedback, the motivation and engagement will wane."

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