Rookie Manager Mistakes and How to Fix Them

Take a deep breath, and enjoy the moment.  You got that promotion or new job, and you are a newly minted manager.  You’re ready to go, and bursting with ideas about how to make your new team a huge success.

Photo credit: Ryan Holst / Foter / CC BY

But watch out–it’s a jungle out there.  If you don’t keep your eyes open to the pitfalls ahead, you can end up sinking slowly into a puddle of quicksand while your direct reports either run away into the trees and leave you to your fate, or ignore you until you disappear.

Here are five newbie errors and how to fix them.  Take heed, and you and your team will be swinging from the vines and enjoying the view above the forest canopy in no time.

1.  Overload the “yes” employee.   It’s so great how happy your new team is to help you.  Well, maybe it’s not the whole team.  Some of them actively avoid new responsibilities, and make it clear how busy they are at every turn.  Others simply don’t offer.  But there’s that one employee who always says “yes” to every duty, no matter how undesirable.  He’s so agreeable that you have quickly found it’s easiest just to go to him with every new problem, no matter how annoying.

But now his workload is out of balance and he doesn’t get as many opportunities to do interesting work, because you have given him everything that no one else really wants to do.  It’s easy to think that he’s just a great employee and he doesn’t mind taking care of things for you.  But if he’s that great for you, he’s probably a hot prospect for other employers too.

“I had a fantastic office manager, and she was so helpful and agreeable, taking things off my plate,” my friend, who owns a small business, told me recently.  “It became a habit to make her my “go to” for every problem that came up, whether it made sense for her to handle it or not, because she solved it right away, and did it with a smile.”

But my friend didn’t notice how much the workload had increased, and how many extra hours her office manager was putting in.  And her employee wasn’t the type to complain, or to be direct in discussing her concerns.  “One day, she put in her notice, telling me she had found a more rewarding and challenging position.  I was kicking myself, because I could have involved her more in the strategic planning for the business, and she would have had opportunities to grow.  Instead, in two weeks she was gone.  Since then, I haven’t found anyone as good at the job as she was.  I wish I’d been more in touch with what was going on.”

Takeaway:  Don’t take advantage of your employees.  There’s always some work that no one wants to do, so spread it around among your team members.  If an employee isn’t complaining, that doesn’t mean he’s happy.  And employees always have a choice–it’s whether to work for us or for someone else.

2. Do what I say, not what I do (or allow).  Jenna is a longtime employee who is used to having a flexible work schedule, and working from home when it’s convenient.  The prior manager had already delivered the message that employees must be in the office during certain times, and that work from home is the exception, not the norm, and must be approved in advance.

Even though you reiterated this message when you took over your team, Jenna continues to work from home when she wants to, without clearing it with you.  You’ve mentioned the policy again in team meetings, and you have casually mentioned to your employees, including Jenna, that “work from home is frowned upon because our customers need us to be available in the office.”  But you haven’t reprimanded Jenna.  She’s an experienced employee, and you’ve been relying on her to help you with some of the things you are still learning about the team. She often sends emails directly to the team herself, telling them that she’ll be working from home or will be in late, without even checking with you.

Ben, who is also an asset to your team, has noticed this.  He is a high performer, and has two children under the age of five, and a spouse who also works full time.  It would be convenient for him to work from home sometimes too, especially since he needs to take his kids to appointments from time to time.  He doesn’t ask to work from home, because he is getting the impression from you that it’s not allowed.  But he’s also noticed how Jenna is given a level of flexibility that’s denied other employees, and he’s starting to feel resentment and disengage from his work.

Denied?  You never said Ben couldn’t work from home.  He didn’t even ask!  But Ben’s conclusion that the rules are for everyone but Jenna is based on your actions.  You tell everyone that core hours are required and that work from home is subject to prior approval and should be the exception, not the norm.  But your team can see that Jenna is exempt from those rules.

Takeaway:  If you (or your leaders) are going to have strict rules about how employees do their work, then clearly communicate them, and enforce them fairly and equally.

3.  Hand down decrees from upper management like they are law, and refuse to discuss them.  Recently, there have been some cost cutting pressures coming from your leadership.  There isn’t really anything you can do to change the plans that have been set forth for your team, and you’ve been tasked with delivering a message that you know no one wants to hear.

You tell the team “there will be no additional approvals to attend conferences or events for the remainder of the year.”  When Eusebio asks you about the annual conference for compensation professionals you have already approved, that’s coming up in eight weeks, you tell him that it will be cancelled.

Eusebio sputters, “I’ve already told my kids we’ll be planning a vacation at the end of the conference, since it’s in Orlando this year.  Are you saying I have to tell my kids they’re not going to Disneyworld?”

Lynnae tells you that she will be unable to get recertification credits for her designation if she’s not allowed to attend the HR conference this fall.  And they have a whole series of sessions about the same benefits administration problem that’s the focus of a high-visibility project your team has been working on for the past six months.

Your answer is that this is just what we have to do, because our leaders have given us this directive, and our job as a team is to be positive and to remain results-oriented and not to take it personally.  You tell Eusebio, Lynnae and the rest of your team that if they’re committed to the company, they will be creative about coming up with solutions to deal with the situation.  That’s what we’re expected to do as professionals.

The meeting ends, and your team has just received the message that their leadership doesn’t understand their needs, and you are certainly not going to listen to them or challenge the authority above you to help them understand why straight cost-cutting could be short-sighted.

Takeaway:  Your message to your team was good.  We do have to be flexible and adjust to changes, even if we don’t agree.  But you missed one critical task.  Instead of being a brick wall of positivity, you need to listen, listen, listen.  And then formulate a plan for putting together facts and recommendations from your team to share with your leaders.  It may not change the directive, but it can help leadership understand the needs of your team and help your team learn that you support them and are willing to go to bat for them.

4.  Put off solving problems you don’t think are critical.  Jack is an administrative assistant for your professional firm.  He does a pretty good job, but doesn’t hit it out of the park–he had come highly recommended by a personal friend of the owner.  He has been working for the firm for four years, and when he was hired, management agreed to match the somewhat high pay rate he had previously been receiving working for the federal government.

Recently, the firm hired Marie, who is managing the operations for two of the firm’s offices.  She had been working from home part time and raising her kids for the past ten years, so this is her first full-time job in many years.  She accepted an offer identical to Jack’s salary, although it was low for the work she would be doing.  The firm’s owner felt that if she wasn’t a skilled negotiator, that wasn’t his problem.  As Marie’s new manager, you had noticed the imbalance in the salaries, but put it on the back burner, since you have so many other fires to put out right now.  You figure you will address it at annual review time, coming up in March.

She worked without incident for six months before tax time rolled around.  As part of Marie’s duties, she assists in preparing the W-2 forms for the employees in the two locations she supervises.  Imagine her shock when she realizes that her pay rate is identical to Jack, the slacker administrative assistant in the East office.  Her face flushes as she recalls all of the extra time she’s put in, and how she’s approached the operations of the firm as if they’d been her own business.

Her trust is damaged, and she feels taken advantage of by the firm, but instead of talking to you, her brand new manager, she quietly begins looking for a new job.

Takeaway:  A problem that doesn’t seem critical to you may actually be front and center for your team members.  Pay is one of the clearest ways employees see how they are valued by the company.  If you see a problem, address it.  You don’t have to wait until annual review time to do it, either.

5.  Ignore imbalances in workload among your team members.  You manage a team of people who share the volume of work that comes in over time.  They use a system that you’re not familiar with, and it doesn’t spit out metrics in an easily readable fashion.  Plus, a lot of the work they do varies in complexity, so even if you counted the number of matters they handle, some of them take drastically more time to resolve.  In other words, it’s not a simple matter to find out if everyone has a fair, balanced workload.

Tegan has lots of cases on his plate.  He is a hard worker, and never complains about how much he has to do.  He just uses his energy to get things done.  You’ve noticed that Stacey, however, complains that she has too much work to do.  The last time she mentioned an uptick in her workload, Tegan offered to help her.  You jumped at this easy solution, and it’s worked out okay for the past six months.  You’ve noticed Tegan is working more hours, but all of the work is getting done, so there’s no problem, right?

Recently, one of your other team members, Jed, gave notice he is leaving to take a sabbatical to travel the world for the next year.  While you are all excited for him, Jed’s work now has to be distributed to all of the other employees on the team.  The only fair way to do this, you think, is to divide it up equally, so you do that.  Tegan begins to fall behind, so you talk to him about focusing on the most important tasks, and help him find ways to be more efficient.  Stacey is complaining more than ever.  You haven’t even had time to get the posting up to replace Jed, and your manager has just told you that due to budget constraints, you will not be able to hire another team member.  Meanwhile, the work is mostly getting done, and you’re still too busy to really dive into the system to figure out who is doing what and how much.

Tegan stops by your office to ask for help, so you call a team meeting.  You encourage Tegan to talk about what’s going on, and what he needs.  Then you wait for your team members to pitch in and help him.  No one offers, because they are all overwhelmed.  You don’t direct the distribution of the work, because you don’t fully understand what’s there and how much time it’s supposed to take to do it.

Meanwhile, Tegan becomes more frustrated and falls further behind.  He doesn’t see the point in working extra to get caught up, because he won’t be able to sustain it.  Your team is now out to protect themselves from each other, because they know you won’t step in to lead the way.

Takeaway:    You can’t afford not to find out what your team is working on as soon as possible after you become their manager.  Use what tools are available, and meet with your team members one on one as well as in a team setting, to gather the information you need, and then direct the distribution of the workload if imbalances exist, and hold team members accountable for their productivity.

While it’s true that it’s a jungle out there, if you remain open to new experiences, you will grow from your adventures in management!

For more information, visit Solve HR, Inc.

Stop Measuring Engagement and Create it!

Kevin Kruse, author of “Employee Engagement 2.0,” writes in Forbes that the way to measure engagement isn’t to look for happiness or satisfaction, but to find those employees who truly care about the company’s mission, and take action to further the success of the company even when no one else is paying attention.  They are “emotionally committed.”

Photo credit: mnadi / Foter / CC BY-NC

We’ve all taken those employee engagement surveys at work, right?  The ones that ask about our levels of satisfaction with our jobs, and what we think about our management.  At best, these surveys give employees a chance to anonymously give feedback in a constructive way, and management and HR will take the opportunity to truly and openly evaluate the results and make needed changes.  At worst, they are time-wasting rubber stamps from employees who have so little trust they don’t even give true answers.  These surveys don’t tell us anything about whether our employees are emotionally committed and willing to go the extra mile for the company’s success.

At one employer of mine, employee engagement survey completion was required.  Once results were reported, the departmental groupings were so small that even though the vendor had combined some teams, it was still obvious who was dissatisfied.  Instead of taking that to heart and working on solving the identified problems, the teams were subjected to meetings with directors, who quizzed them about what, specifically they weren’t happy about.  In other words, the employee engagement survey was used to identify who was complaining, and then target them for interrogation.

Another example from a colleague involved a highly dysfunctional department with a low level of trust in management.  When employee engagement results came back as disappointing (surprise!), the department was gathered together at a big meeting, where the individual contributors were tasked with solving the problem themselves and reporting back to management.  This strategy may have been very effective with a high-functioning team, but in this department, it sent the message that management wasn’t willing to own the problem along with the rest of the department, and participate in creating solutions.

As Tony Schwartz, co-author of “The Power of Full Engagement” recently wrote in The New York Times, “What companies really need to measure is not how engaged their employees are, but rather how consistently energized they feel.”  Imagine a workplace where we take the time and resources that were previously used on sterile surveys, and actually communicate with one another.  Managers can display vulnerability and honesty, and true appreciation for the work their employees do.  Coaching and performance improvement comes from a place of true aligned goals and a vision for success that’s shared by team members.

Bottom Line:  engagement isn’t a simple matter.  It’s intertwined with culture and communication in a way that can’t be measured by a survey.  Let’s stop pretending that we can pay lip service to engagement and check a box.

For more information, visit Solve HR, Inc.

5 Tips for Handling Employee Medical Issues

I get a lot of calls from managers telling me that an employee who used to have stellar, or even just acceptable performance, now is having trouble.  She’s told her manager that she’s dealing with diabetes, (or MS, depression, migraines, you name it!) and this is affecting her ability to work.  It’s probably also making her miss work intermittently too, which can negatively affect coworkers and the business.

Photo credit: Lee Royal / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Many employees are just as confused as management about why they can’t perform or how medical problems might be affecting their work.  Here are five tips for approaching a sticky problem involving employee medical issues:

  1. Get HR involved.  You are a manager, and your expertise is helping employees do their jobs the best way possible.  You can deliver that message, coach, follow up and hold people accountable, but if there is another issue involved that isn’t appropriate for you to discuss with your employee, you need backup from your company’s absence management or reasonable accommodation experts.  They will talk with the employee to find out what assistance may be needed, and whether it’s reasonable for the company to provide it.  If you don’t have this function in your company, choose an experienced consultant to guide you through this process.
  2. Offer FMLA leave.  If your employee is missing work, even on an intermittent basis, be sure the employee has been offered the opportunity to request FMLA leave and/or state leaves.  Depending on the number of employees at your work location, your company may be responsible for offering the opportunity to apply for FMLA leave.  Leave requests may be handled in-house or by an external vendor.
  3. Don’t ask personal medical questions.  Your employee may feel comfortable sharing every gory detail of medical interventions and illnesses.  This is your employee’s right, but you should never ask questions unless they relate to the employee’s ability to do the work.  For example, it’s okay to ask “What do you need so you can do your job?” but not “Do you have a slipped disk?  We have a whole pallet of 75 lb. boxes that need unloading.”
  4. Be flexible.  If an employee needs a temporary alteration in his job duties, and it’s easy to do that, then make it happen.  Many managers worry that if they allow a temporary accommodation, it will just tempt others to use excuses to avoid work.  Often, simply making sure there’s documentation of the medical need eliminates the issue of copycat requests.  If a doctor’s note is required, then most people who request help will really need it.
  5. Don’t Broadcast.  There’s no need to explain to your other employees what’s going on with the situation.  If others ask, simply respond that you have it handled, and that you guarantee the nosy employee the same privacy as the employee who needs help.  Other employees are not entitled to an explanation, but if their help is needed, show genuine appreciation and reward them for pitching in.

For more information, visit Solve HR, Inc.