10 Mistakes Even Good Managers Make

10 Mistakes Even Good Managers Make January 14, 2010

My wife Catherine is a fantastic manager. In her 30-plus years as a … well, boss at work, she has learned how to do it right. She’s pretty much guaranteed to be the best boss anyone who’s ever worked for her has ever had. Here is her list of 10 mistakes even good managers make:

Managing people is the most difficult thing any professional person ever does. It’s incomparably difficult. To take just two reasons why it’s easier to wrestle an elephant than to manage people: 1. Most people think they already know everything; and 2. Most people can’t stand being told what to do. And that’s just for starters. Then you also have all those people who refuse to know anything at all, and who can’t for a moment function without being told exactly what to do. The bottom line is that people are endlessly complex. What makes a manager’s job so extraordinarily difficult is that, in order to motivate and keep productive any given staff member, he or she has to tailor-make everything they do with and for that person in such a way that it perfectly fits that person’s entirely unique emotional, psychological, and intellectual needs. That is one tough sweater to keep on knitting. Learning to successfully manage people takes a lot of concentrated time and effort.

Sure, you can do your staff’s work better and faster than they can. That knowledge is what moved you into management. It’s also true that sometimes, if you want something done right, you have to do it  yourself. The problem is that if you keep doing work your staff should be doing, ten years down the road you’ll still be working like crazy, none of your staff will have learned how to do their job, and your company will have moved forward exactly none–and probably be worse off. That’s a failure. Supervise the work your staff does, but let them do it.

You can’t show favoritism among your staff members; you must treat everyone the same. Being human means you’re going to have more affection for some of your staff than you do for others. Being a manager means you cannot let that greater affection show. If you give in to the temptation to treat any of your employees in any way better than you do the others, the others are 100% guaranteed to notice and resent it—and soon. If you let Bob do below-average work because you feel sorry for him, Sam will be resentful, and also start slacking off. If you let Sally slide on some stuff because she makes you laugh, you’re going to start having a problem with Suzy. You like Tom, and so don’t mind if he takes a few extra minutes for lunch? Then don’t be surprised when everybody starts coming back from lunch late. In the end, you do no one a favor by treating anyone better than anyone else.

It’s a weird quirk of human nature that bad attitudes are more infectious than swine flu. A staff member who thrives on negativity always endeavors to get other staff members to see things as they do; “misery enjoys company” is as true as true gets. Negative employees never fail to complain. They highlight problems; they moan about inequities; they anticipate, cause, and rejoice in things going wrong. If left unchecked, they’ll soon have your whole staff agreeing that their job is awful, and their boss a jerk. One bad apple can ruin the whole bunch.

If you let your staff get away with breaking small rules, the message they’ll receive is that it’s also okay for them to break big rules. If you really don’t care if a particular rule is broken, then it’s probably not a good rule in the first place, and should be altered or dropped. But if it’s important enough to be a rule, it’s important enough for your staff to respect it.

Part of being a good boss is making sure that your staff understands that your relationship with them is based wholly upon their job performance—and that if they don’t perform their job well, you might one day have to fire them. Part of being a good friend is accepting and supporting your friends, even when they mess up. Friend and boss are two radically different roles. Do not confuse them. If you act like a friend toward someone who works for you, they will naturally assume that you will not fire them, even if they mess up. That assumption is very unfair, both to them and to your organization. That you cannot be a person’s boss and their friend is a tough lesson that every manager learns, sooner or later.

If I am late to work one morning because of a really bad accident on the freeway, “heavy traffic” is the reason I am late. If, due to traffic, I am always late to work, then for me “heavy traffic” becomes an excuse. Similarly, if, while learning a new copier, I load paper into it incorrectly, the reason for my mistake is that I’m inexperienced with that copier. But if three months later I’m still incorrectly loading paper into that same copier, then whatever reason I might give for doing that can only be an excuse. A temporary personal problem is a reason; an unending series of personal problems becomes an excuse. As understanding and fair people, we accept it when a staff member has a reason for which, for a short while, they’re unable to do their job well. As understanding and fair people, we also sometimes get tricked into feeling sorry for people, and so accepting the excuses they use for continuing to do their job poorly. Learn to tell the difference between someone who is temporarily unable, and someone you’re merely enabling. The former you’re helping; the latter you’re not.

Good employees can’t do a good job every single day if they don’t know what they’re actually supposed to do every single day. If their job responsibilities are not carefully spelled out, bad employees will find an endless number of excuses to do a bad job. You will never be able to reward your good staff, nor help your bad staff improve, if no one is really accountable, because no one’s job responsibilities are really defined. Defining (and subsequently maintaining) clear job responsibilities for each of their staff members is easily one of the most important tasks of the good manager.

Supervising is the most important job any manager has. Your staff is by far and away the most effective tool you have for succeeding at your goals. Because supervision is a long-term activity, it often takes a back seat to more immediately urgent concerns. But if you continue to leave your staff unsupervised, it’s a certainty that before long they themselves will become an urgent concern. Your staff must know that you’re involved in what they do, that you’re aware of their work and progress, that you care. (Not to mention how important it is that you’re aware of the quality of their work.) And physically being there to review and discuss their work with them is the only possible way to let them know that.

A problem amongst your staff is like a noise from your car’s engine, or a cavity in your tooth. Sure, you can ignore it for awhile. But the longer you do, the worse it gets. It’s an unalterable truth of life that the sooner you address a problem, the easier it is to solve. As a manager, think of your staff as a garden, and problems within it as weeds. The sooner you get to them, the better.

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  • Mark Lattimore

    Excellent! I could relate to (read that "I am guilty of") every one of those. Guess that's why I'm not in management any more. Your wife has a rare gift.

  • Roger: Sure, to you it's a joke. Meanwhile, I cry myself to sleep every night asking myself that same thing. But go ahead. Laugh at my misery. Use my angst as your plaything. Have fun.

    Mark: Thank you. Your words will mean a lot to my wife. (I can only HOPE she doesn't read yours, Roger.)

  • RogerC

    Your wife is obviously intelligent! Explain to me again why she married you.

  • #9 is killing me right now. I'm managing 10 people across two teams and am in the middle of an industry that's going through major chaos due to new government regulations. Our world changes every 48 hours and in the next 12 months we'll either be out of business or doubled in size. I'm in meetings 6 to 8 hours a day, and am doing all the other day-to-day stuff at night.

    Gotta run — I actually have a staff meeting starting soon! So maybe I'm still getting some #9 in after all.

  • I am a Battalion Chief at a small County EMS service. I have only been a BC for a little over 2 years. I have experienced each of those 10 mistakes above, in some fashion or another. I think your wife hit the nail right on the head, however, I would like her to think about one thing. That is, in number one she talks about "Managing People" and I realize I have only been in a supervisory role for a short time, but one of the first things I was told by one of my mentors was that you don't manage people, you lead them. You manage supplies, products and things of that nature. You must Lead people. I was told by another, that employees are like strings, if you try to push it just folds up on you, but if you pull it behind you it will follow you where ever you lead it. Just a thought since I was up after a late night call and couldn't sleep. Tell your wife I am planning on taking this to my next Battalion Chief meeting. Jason

  • textjunkie

    Excellent post!!! I may have to print it out and frame it on my office wall… 😉

  • Jason: Thanks for writing in. Good point about leading. I know she's just now doing another list of things managers do right, and I believe Is A Leader is one of them. (As opposed to this list, which, of course, is of mistakes managers most typically make.) I know it'll please Cat that you're taking her list with you to your next meeting. Thanks for writing to tell us that.

    Text: Nice! Thanks.

  • Elizabeth MacGuire


    Thanks for sharing your wife's memo. I'm currently struggling myself with new responsibilities as a site manager. I think my main problem is #2, as I am so used to doing things myself that I don't realize I'm hurting the people now in my charge. Then there is one person who feels that I'm trespassing when I tell him that he's not doing the job he's clearly been assigned to do. I think sometimes that it's like "pulling teeth" to get him to understand that I'm not "pulling things off the top of my head" and that whatever I say to him is for his good. I know a lot of times it's like I'm being pulled in two different directions, as my boss expects me to make sure the employees he put in my care are performing their jobs as expected. It's not unreasonable, but sometimes it can be a real struggle. Your employees expect you to be for them too, and explain things well enough so they understand where you're coming from.

    I am, however, realizing that my employees, as they come to know me, are willing to work with me. That makes the struggle worthwhile.

  • Catherine Shore

    Dear Elizabeth,

    Sounds like you may have a staff member with a bad attitude who is testing the new boss. Good luck with that, and see number 4.


  • Bertha

    "So I'll be divorcing her soon." Was this a typo? Where did that come from?

    The article was very helpful. I have a new manager, change in organizational structure. She is a very uplifting and positive leader. I plan to compile my questions based on these points made in the article to great a better understanding of her leadership plans. I hope to have a good boss/employee relationship with her in order to have the peace of mind I will be allowed and encouraged and mentored throughout the year to achieve my goals both professionally and personally.

  • Bertha: It was a joke. Sounds like you're going to well in life, professionally.

  • Bertha

    Yes, I hope so. I love my job in which I can work out of my home 80% of the time. I do have a question for you.

    Can you direct me to a link on your website or elsewhere, for advise on how to enter my comments on my annual review? I just recieved it by my prior manager and I am not happy with the results. There are too many areas that seem to be both subjective and non-specific. I have emailed my mgr with a request for 2 or 3 specific examples where I showed lack of good time management and lack of consideration of other's time. I pride myself in both those two areas. The only 2 peers that I know who completed a review on me, denied, voluntarily of course, submitting any such negative performance reviews about me. I am hoping that by my being truthful and actually stating on my review that I was totally surprised that no one brought these two areas of "need to improve" to my attention sooner, will not back fire on me. Any thoughts anyone? Thanks for your time.

  • Charmaine

    This is very good stuff, I hope it is okay for me to forward it to some of my colleagues (with citation).

  • Ben

    I manage a team of three people directly, one whom I am married to and the two others are my best guy friends. Fortunately, we've all worked together for a long time but I'm totally screwed in the 'employees, not friends' category! Great list!

  • I love that you posted this. Your timing is really impeccable, John. I can't help thinking you're doing this to manage us. And that you manage us quite well, either intentionally, instinctually, or Divinely! wink wink. (probably all three.)

    Although I will say since you and Cat went on a date with DR, we all know she's your favorite here. 🙂

    That aside, I really do appreciate this posting.

    That good management so seldom happens is just a pity. No wonder Cat makes the big bucks! Plus she IS beautiful, which always helps!

  • very useful and informative. Thanks a lot for posting it 🙂

  • Tim

    Really an Excellent article. Thank you very much John and Catherine.

    Some suggestions that may be helpful for some people in Management – these are ONLY suggestions, thank you:

    Where *legally* possible, hire staff as Independent Contractors rather than "permanent" employees.

    This has several nice benefits, including some of the following:

    1) Would you agree it is possible more independent thinkers may apply for employment via the Independent Contractor route? (If you are looking for people who think, would you agree this could possibly be helpful, at least part of the time?)

    2) Is it possible that people who may apply for employment via the Independent Contractor route are more entrepreneurial and (particularly if they have a track record of success as Independent Contractors) can think quickly on their feet?

    3) Would you agree that it is possible that a Non Disclosure Agreement and Non Compete Agreement you may find useful for "permanent" employees may also be applied to Independent Contractors?

    Would you agree that happier Staff, happier Clients, lower (potential) legal costs, and faster results can be important?

    Thank You,


  • Brook

    Thanks so much. I’m curious if you think that in the Christian realm, i.e. a church organization, that there are some differences in the being a friend category. Because you are all working together in ministry.
    also I noticed that you didn’t give a solution to the bad apple.

  • nik