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Five Of The Worst Mistakes Managers Can Make And How To Avoid Them
by Bob Selden

I well remember the first time I was “corrected” by a manager. I was a young bank clerk and had received a transaction that was incorrect, from a much more senior person (a manager) in another branch of the bank. I sent the transaction back with a note asking for it to be corrected. Next thing I hear was my own manager shouting at me from his office. Apparently, I had upset his “good colleague” and I must now go and apologise in person! There was no discussion as to whether I was right or wrong about either the transaction or what I did – just “Go immediately and apologise!” I decided then and there that when I got to be a manager, I would treat my staff differently. Do you have some horror stories about being managed? Here are five that have been related to me by colleagues and friends and for those of you who are managers, some suggestions on how to avoid similar mistakes.

1. Jane worked as a waitress in a classy café. Her boss would not allow her or any of the other staff to talk to one another unless it was directly related to work. In fact if they did, they were often chastised in front of customers. As a further measure, he installed cameras supposedly for security, but which were used to monitor staff interaction. When Jane and her colleagues picked up their pay, they were always lectured about what they had done wrong during the week – there was never any praise. As you might expect, staff turnover was very high.

What’s the management principle that is being abused here? Well, there are many, but the key one is “Treat Staff As Entire People, Not Just Work Resources”. Worklife and life outside of work cannot be separated – the person is the same person, no matter where they are. As a manager, you employ the entire person, not just their mind and body during working hours. In fact, it is probably because of who they are as an entire person that they were originally hired. It’s often amazing what people can become if they are allowed to. Chances are, that the most memorable restaurant experience you have ever had was in a restaurant where Jane and her colleagues were allowed to be themselves, i.e. the full person.

2. Rob worked as a qualified, but junior physiotherapist in a busy hospital. He along with three of his colleagues were asked by their manager to discuss amongst themselves how they would like their rosters to be organised (i.e. who would do what shifts etc.) and put forward their proposal. Rob and his colleagues were very happy with their final choices as they had considered all of their personal and professional needs and felt that their decision was the best for all. A day before the new rosters were to start, Rob found out by rumour during his lunch break that their roster recommendations were not to be implemented. Worse still, the rosters decided on by their manager did not suit any of the four. This decision by their manager resulted in a severe lowering of morale within the team and created a culture of mistrust with management. In future, they would be very wary of any suggestion from management.

”Give People Responsibility for Managing Their Own Work” is the key management principle that Rob’s manager needed to apply. Obviously, the manager started out this way, but took back the responsibility very quickly. One of the five intrinsic motivators that all people have is “Responsibility” (these motivators are covered in detail in my article “Are Happy Employees Motivated Employees” ( ). Once performance expectations have been set and agreed, giving people the responsibility as to how they will achieve these expectations can be highly motivating.

3. Can the “Responsibility” principle be taken too far? Take the case of Emma, another professional person who worked in a team with a very relaxed boss. Emma’s manager gave everyone a lot of freedom in how they managed themselves. For example, the manager introduced an informal “time in lieu” system that allowed people to take time off when they had worked extra hours without claiming overtime. On the surface, this sounded like a great idea and was popular with all the staff. However, one of Emma’s colleagues started to abuse the system to the extent that she actually did private work within work hours that enabled her to build up her “time in lieu”. Emma became very agitated and demotivated by the actions of her colleague. What could Emma’s manager have done to prevent this?

The key to ensuring a scheme like this works, is to cover all the bases at the start. For example, when setting the groundrules for the scheme, ask the staff to consider and recommend “What should happen if one of our colleagues abuses the system? What will we do? What will we say (to our colleague and our manager)? What action should the manager take?” Using this approach, the manager still holds true to the “Responsibility” principle, because he/she is ensuring that the staff take responsibility for both their actions and the consequences of their actions.

4. Andrew was a long term (10 years) professional in a team of highly qualified people who were given the responsibility of managing their own work. People enjoyed their work, they enjoyed the freedom, they enjoyed the challenges their roles brought. Andrew and his colleagues were highly motivated. They were highly respected by management. Andrew’s manager was obviously good at managing the “Responsibility” principle – it was in another area of management that she suddenly (and unexpectedly) fell down. Because of the challenging nature of the work and the range of experiences that were available within Andrew’s team, management decided to send all the new graduates to Andrew’s manager for training and development. The manager grasped the opportunity and immediately started to give all the new recruits the most interesting and challenging work. The old timers (such as Andrew) were relegated to the mundane. Within five months, six of the very experienced people had resigned.

What went wrong within this highly motivated team? Andrew’s manager lost sight of one of the other five intrinsic motivators – “The Opportunity for Growth and Development” (see “Are Happy Employees Motivated Employees” ( ). No matter how long a person has been in the role, they still look for opportunities to expand their self knowledge, skills and competencies – they need to be challenged. Andrew’s manager certainly applied this to the new recruits, but forgot to keep applying it with her long term staff.

5. To finish, here’s another restaurant case. Margaret was one of a team of five people employed in a restaurant where all tips were shared amongst the staff at the end of each shift. Staff members took it in turn to count and distribute the tips. Sometimes, mistakes were made which made the others annoyed. Instead of trying to correct the mistakes, management decided to take over the responsibility for calculating and distributing tips. Suddenly, the amount of tips went down (considerably). Apart from dishonesty on the part of management, what is the management principle that is being abused here?

”Tips” are a form of recognition from customers that they have received good service. I appreciate that in some countries, tips are part of the service fee. However, even where this is the case, the amount of tips depends on how well customers perceive the service they have received. “Recognition for Achievement” is a further one of the five intrinsic motivators. If this is taken away, people tend to only perform to a certain standard (that enables them to keep their job), not above and beyond what one would normally expect. You can find out more about “Recognition” and its impact by visiting my article “Have You Been Appreciated Lately?” (

I trust that these five cases have been useful for you in clarifying some of the key management principles that help people remain motivated. If you are a manager and would like to discuss how you can further implement some of these, please email me via

Copyright © 2007 The National Learning Institute

Bob Selden may be contacted at

Bob Selden has made a few mistakes in his career as a manager and has tried to learn from them. He has also experienced being managed by managers who have made many mistakes. All of this experience comes together on his website to provide new, aspiring and experienced managers some helpful tips on how to avoid such mistakes. Contact Bob via the National Learning Institute to get some free advice or to share a “horror” story.


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