As a leader, the most costly mistakes are often the most imperceptible.
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 works doesn’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 with Know Your Team, 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 sufferings 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% of 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. (You may also want to check out our One-on-One Meeting Tool in Know Your Team, which gives you hundreds of suggested questions and agenda templates for you to prepare for your 1-on-1s.)
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 headfirst 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 the 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, the 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 the 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.
💙 Good news: Many of these mistakes are avoidable. Especially if you use Know Your Team. Take advantage of the One-on-Ones Tool, Culture Question Tool, and Social Question Tool in Know Your Team to run effective one-on-ones, get honest feedback, and build rapport in your team. It won’t replace your own effort and work by any means, but it’ll automate and systemize things in a way that will make your life as a manager a TON easier. Give Know Your Team a try today.
Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you avoid becoming a bad boss. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.