Common mistakes first-time managers make and how to avoid them.
(Originally published in HBR. Image: HBR Staff; CSA Images/Getty Images)
For months (or years), you’ve been working towards a big promotion — taking on stretch projects, showing off your skills, and consistently delivering results. Now you’ve finally earned your first role as a manager. You should be ecstatic. Why then, do you feel uneasy?
The truth is: Most new leaders experience post-promotion unease. Along with the excitement, there is a sense of uncertainty. They wonder what knowledge they don’t yet know but need to succeed in the role. This discomfort is well-placed. Research shows the Peter Principle is a real phenomenon. It says that competent people are often promoted into jobs that require skills outside their expertise.
Success as a first-time manager requires a major transition. While most organizations have onboarding programs for new hires, few offer similar support to employees navigating leadership positions. As a result, nearly 50% of promoted people underperform up to 18 months after assuming their roles. This, combined with the high exposure promotions bring and the associated risk of failure, leave new leaders incredibly vulnerable.
To avoid falling into this trap, and set yourself up for success, consider these five common mistakes first-time managers often make and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Not realizing you’re on a stage.
Social hierarchy is inherent to organizations — regardless of how egalitarian you or your team aspire to be. Your level of seniority at work is always going to impact how you perceive, think, and react to others. Your relative position of power will also influence how others perceive you.
New managers often fail to recognize this. As a result, you may unintentionally exhibit behaviors that hinder your effectiveness or overlook opportunities to model the positive behaviors you want to foster on your team.
How to avoid this mistake:
As you take on a leadership role and ascend the ranks, you need to gain greater self-awareness. Your status and power have risen and that naturally attracts attention. Your team members are now constantly (consciously and unconsciously) monitoring your words and actions to gauge how they can best interact with you. After all, you’re in charge of their development and success. It’s your job to help them grow, and that includes measuring their wins and providing them with feedback on their losses. This means your behavior and choices will inevitably impact their behavior, emotional states, and the overall team culture.
In meetings and in one-on-one interactions, carefully manage your actions, words, and expressions. When you were an individual contributor, you may have been able to freely express your complaints, desires, and thoughts without much consideration. Now, you need to think about how both things will influence the people around you — and whether that influence is in the best interest of the company and the goals you are all responsible for delivering.
For example, if you’re feeling frustrated by an organizational process, rather than expressing that frustration aloud and riling up your team members, try to set the example by using your relative power to propose a solution. If you’re in a brainstorming meeting and want to share an idea, consider preempting it with, “I’m just thinking out loud,” so that your direct reports don’t mistake your words as action items. If you tend to furrow your brow while thinking, tell your team, “This is my thinking face,” so that they don’t interpret your expression as a disapproving scowl.
Likewise, your manager and other leaders will be looking to you to level up in accordance with your new role. This expectation relates to your performance and leadership presence, an amalgam of qualities and behaviors that convey confidence, competence, and credibility in a business setting.
To begin building stronger leadership presence, ask trusted colleagues to observe you in meetings and provide you with feedback about how you can be more impactful with your verbal and non-verbal communication.
Mistake #2: Choosing hubris over humility.
People sometimes mask feelings of insecurity by acting like they have it all figured out — a losing course of action in a new role. You may still be at the same company, but don’t underestimate the growth and change this promotion will likely require from you.
You may worry that admitting what you don’t know will reveal a lack of confidence or expertise. However, pretending to know something that you don’t can lead to missed learning opportunities, inaccurate decision-making, and decreased trust and credibility if you’re caught.
How to avoid this mistake:
Choose humility over hubris. Humility requires self-awareness, integrity, and emotional intelligence. It also leads to curiosity and curiosity leads to learning. This should be your primary agenda — for both you and your team. By asking for help and listening to feedback from others, humble leaders set an example that encourages their direct reports to do the same, ultimately inspiring.
The truth is that you can’t know everything, and good leadership is about asking thoughtful questions in order to close knowledge gaps and gather the information you need to lead well. Remember that questions don’t make you look incompetent — pretending to know something you know nothing about does.
Here are a few question areas you should focus on in your new role:
Ask your team members about their current projects and workload, what assistance they’d like from you, and how they prefer to be managed. (This will help you set them — and you — up for success.)
Consult with your manager about their performance expectations. (This will give you the data you need to set goals and understand your deliverables.)
Ask other leaders and mentors, “What do you wish you’d known earlier in your career that you know now?” (This will allow you to sidestep common pitfalls.)
Ask your predecessor for advice and recommendations. (This will equip you with knowledge around your team’s strengths and weaknesses and prepare you for any challenges you may encounter.)
Mistake #3: Neglecting to consider all your stakeholders.
Your team, manager, and cross-functional peers (or the peers in other departments whom you work closely with) are your most obvious stakeholders. You need to understand their needs and expectations to do your day-to-day job. But, in your new role as a manager, your stakeholders are also going to expand beyond this group. Most new managers don’t consider the new stakeholders — like your boss’s boss and executive team members who are now invested in your work — that they need to build relationships with.
Failing to consider all your stakeholders leads to you and your team missing out on valuable insights. You need to understand what your stakeholders expect in order to deliver results that align with their goals. If you don’t invest in building these relationships, you’ll also be less impactful. You need strong alliances across the organization to accomplish work more efficiently.
How to avoid this mistake:
Make it a priority to identify your new stakeholders and build relationships with them. Ask yourself, “Beyond my manager and my team, who else has an interest in our success? Who is impacted by our failures?” Consider which people hold both formal and informal power over the parts of the business that are tied to your goals. This includes the key decision-makers in the departments you’re working with, as well as their allies. If you’re unsure who these people are, your manager should be able to tell you.
Once you get clear on who you need to connect with, set up one-on-one meetings with each person to understand their most significant issues and concerns. Ask about their expectations of you and identify how you and your team can add value to their work.
Cultivating relationships across your organization is not extraneous networking — it’s an essential part of your work as a leader. At the end of the day, you need stakeholder buy-in to develop innovative ideas, unblock obstacles for your team, and make an impact. If you nurture these relationships and continue to add value over time, you’ll generate goodwill that will serve you in this role and beyond.
Mistake #4: Sticking to what you already know how to do.
It’s easy to default to the strengths and habits that got you promoted. But as a manager, your former strengths may hinder your effectiveness. Your job is now to develop other people. You must learn how to hold them accountable for the tasks you assign and provide them with feedback to help them develop.
Most new leaders understand this but struggle to adjust their behavior. Especially, when you’re busy, it’s easy to stay in your comfort zone and take on the work yourself. The problem is that this behavior ends up stunting the growth of everyone and can lead to burnout and poor performance.
How to avoid this mistake:
Plan on making some big changes to the way your work. To start, you’ll need to learn how to delegate. As an individual contributor, you may have been rewarded for your speedy and strong heads-down work. As a manager, that same process is going to set your entire team up to fail.
You now need to consider the long game. What individual tasks and projects need to get done to reach your long-term goals? Who on your team is qualified to do what? Instead of executing on these things yourself, spend that time strategically aligning your team member’s strengths and interests with the tasks that need to be completed. Coach them when they’re struggling and check in with them regularly to keep them on track. Finally, provide them with the resources they need to get things done and work to break down barriers blocking their work.
This new way of working will initially feel awkward, but keep in mind that the discomfort is temporary. More importantly, it signals growth. As you work through these feelings, practice self-compassion. Being kind to yourself helps you build resilience, and even be more compassionate towards others, which will increase your effectiveness as a leader.
Mistake #5: Failing to ask for feedback.
Managers have various reasons for not proactively seeking feedback. Some people fear critical feedback or view it as a sign of weakness. Others have had negative experiences with feedback or are simply unaware of its significance for their performance and growth.
However, waiting for feedback when you’re in a new role can be perilous. To succeed, you must understand how your actions and decisions are perceived, gauge whether they are aligned with expectations, and adjust your approach accordingly.
How to avoid this mistake:
Seek direct and specific feedback from your manager, team, and key stakeholders. Many people hesitate to provide feedback, but you can skirt this issue by asking the right questions.
It’s easier for people to provide positive feedback, so begin your inquiry there. Ask, “What are one or two things I’m doing well so far?” If offered a general response, such as, “You’re off to a good start,” push for specifics to gain actionable insights. For example, you might say, “Thanks, that’s great to hear. Can you tell me a few specific things you’ve been really pleased with so I can continue down the right path?”
Once you know what you need to work on, solicit ideas for improvement going forward. Asking future-oriented questions versus questions about your past performance can help you circumvent people’s hesitations to provide critical feedback. Ask your manager, “What’s one way I could be more effective in this role moving forward?” Or ask your team, “What’s one way I can further support you in your work?”
. . .
A leadership promotion opens an exciting new chapter in your career, but the initial months can be a vulnerable time. By implementing the practical solutions above, you can avoid common pitfalls that lead to underperformance and succeed in your new role more quickly.
With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina