The Two Worst Management Mistakes I’ve Ever Seen
Everyone who has been a manager or leader has made mistakes. No leader is perfect and every person falls down from time to time. Done well, a mistake or failure can be the best opportunities to grow, to evolve, and to become a better leader. To learn and grow from mistakes requires vulnerability (admitting where we went wrong) and owning the outcome (not shifting blame or excusing it away).
Let me share with you the two worst management mistakes I’ve ever seen.
I was a young, newly minted mid-level manager. Two other women (I’ll call them Pam and Holly) shared the same position as I did, so we were direct peers in every regard, with the exception of both women having been at this organization and in this position much longer than me. The team was diverse in age, experience, and in their work schedules.
One day, I noticed a new posting on the bulletin board in the break room. I looked closer and saw the title of the document:
Complaints From Staff About Other Staff
After picking my jaw up from the ground, I did a quick read through the list of complaints, with each one falling in the typical range of office complains: unwashed dishes in the shared kitchen, food missing from or rotting in the refrigerator, people taking too long of breaks, and on and on. You know how these things usually go.
I racked my brain trying to figure out why any manager would ever think it would be a good idea to create a document like this, let alone share it with the entire team and give it such a passive-aggressive, trust-exploding, conflict-begging title. There were no names attached (thankfully), but there were also no suggestions for resolution, no encouragements to have conversations, and no action steps to take with this new information. It was just a dump of privately collected negative feedback.
I quickly took down the paper and hid it in my mailbox. No one had to tell me this was a really bad idea, even if the person who created the document had the best of intentions. I didn’t think this is in the moment, but now I do think this person was trying to create transparency, aiming to give everyone on the team an opportunity to address their role in creating tension, conflict, or confusion. The intention may have been appropriate, but I don’t think I could have possibly disagreed more with the method.
Creating and sharing the document, I’m still convinced, was the second worst management mistake I’ve ever seen.
What I did next is probably the worst management mistake I’ve ever made or seen.
Later that day, I took the document and shared it with my team leader, who was also Pam and Holly’s team leader. I shared, in total dismay, why I thought this document was a terrible idea and pointed the finger at who I thought had created it, Pam. Our team leader agreed it was a bad idea and agreed to talk with her.
A day or two later, at our morning huddle with the team, Pam stepped up to address the team. Visibly shaking and anxious, she went on to apologize to the team for creating the document, explaining her intent, and reiterating that she never meant for anyone to take offense, but only to clear up what she saw as issues building up within the team.
So, you might be asking why I think this is the worst management mistake I’ve ever made or seen.
Before this incident, Pam and I had a great working relationship. Mutual respect, trusted conversations, shared goals for the team. When I saw the document posted on the bulletin board, I knew she had created it. I was instantly worried about the damage this could do to the team — people wondering if the complaints were about them or feeling betrayed that their frustrations, perhaps shared in confidence, had been betrayed and others would now walk around in constant suspicion.
My primary concern was about a sense of harmony within the team. I never stopped to think about Pam, to talk with her and share my concerns with her. Instead, I did the exact thing she was trying to prevent or resolve within the team: private complaints and secret resentment. I displayed a total breach of trust and our relationship was never the same. She did not speak to me for weeks after her apology to the team. Even after some time, our communications were only as needed — logistics, necessary information, and nothing else.
Pam and Holly had a close relationship, as you’ll remember they had both been at this organization and in this role longer than me. Because of how hurt Pam was, Holly closed ranks. My relationship with Holly changed in the same ways it did with Pam, out of loyalty. The damage at our leadership level definitely had an impact on the team as a whole. And I can’t say for certain this incident was a driving factor, but within six months, both women left the organization.
At the core, I was trying to avoid direct conflict. Or at least what I imagined would be conflict. That’s a natural thing for many people when working together on a team or with people they don’t know or have fully established trust. We find ways to work around conflict, looking for ways we think are safer. Small ways to discreetly share information to try and change other people without having to actually have an awkward conversation. Or we go to an authority figure who we think can make them change, unwittingly eroding the most fundamental element for a healthy team and work environment: trust.
What would I do differently now?
I would take time to understand what I was feeling and concerned about and then go directly to Pam and find a way to express my honest feedback and concerns as soon as I could. I wish I would have slowed down and communicated directly with her.
In the years since, I learned about a really powerful tool called SBI that would have helped me do a much better job in this situation and many others.
Situation — Behavior — Impact
Whenever you need to give feedback to someone, SBI is a simple template and thought process you can use to keep the communication simple, direct, and most importantly to me, avoid making a personal attack or eroding trust.
How does it work? Let me use my situation with Pam as an example. Here’s how I could approach the same issue now, using SBI:
- Situation: Pam, I was in the break room just a few minutes ago and was checking out any new posts on the bulletin board.
- Behavior: I saw the document you created and posted on the bulletin board about staff complaints.
- Impact: I am worried that communicating those concerns through a flyer on the bulletin board may negatively affect the team and impact how people trust one another. Can we talk more about this and see if there is another way we can address the issues?
I think SBI is powerful and practical for three reasons:
- It’s a template. Plug and play. It’s still wise to spend time thinking about the specific language you use (saying “your terrible idea” won’t work even with SBI). Having a three-step template creates a reliable process and eliminates complexity when trying to communicate clearly when strong emotions might be involved.
- It’s most effective when used immediately. Too much feedback gets swallowed up, either by not sharing it at all or by holding on to it too long before you share it. No one can read minds and everyone forgets details over time. Feedback loses relevance over time, too (that’s why an “annual review” shouldn’t be the only time you have performance review conversations). Real-time feedback is where crucial conversations, mutual understanding, and change really happen.
- You don’t have to make a compliment sandwich. You know the oft-used method for feedback: something nice, actual criticism you want to say, something else nice you probably made up. People read through that and you’ll lose credibility when you try to give sincere encouragement later. SBI is a direct way to give feedback without having to do a dance no one is going to buy anyway.
Here are a few questions you can reflect on today.
- How do you handle conflict with peers? How is that working for you?
- How comfortable are you addressing a behavior in others that you see as being negative or harmful?
- Have you had a positive experience receiving hard feedback? What made it a positive experience you could learn from?
Look for opportunities, big and small, to practice giving real-time feedback with SBI. I’d love to hear how it goes!