How to Avoid Ten Common Managerial Pitfalls

By Ranjit Singh Malhi, Ph.D.


To attain peak performance at the workplace, managers must learn how to do the right things right with and through other people. In this regard, they should avoid the ten common managerial mistakes which greatly impede overall work performance.

Based on data that I collected over a one year period (1997/1998) through a questionnaire involving 297 workshop participants (71.2 % managerial and 28.8% non-managerial employees) from numerous organizations in both the public and private sectors, the most common mistake that Malaysian managers commit is having a know-it-all attitude. The mean score was 3.31 on a scale of 1 to 5.

The respondents in the above-mentioned survey were provided with a list of 20 mistakes that managers generally commit. They were asked to indicate the extent to which their immediate superiors committed such mistakes. They were asked to make their evaluation using a five-point scale, namely, Never (1), Rarely (2), Sometimes (3), Often (4) and Always (5).

1. Having a “Know-It-All” Attitude

Many managers are guilty of adopting the “know-it-all” attitude. I have come across bosses who insist on being right despite all the facts being against them. There are others who turn a deaf ear to suggestions from subordinates and insist on things being done their way. Such an attitude not only demonstrates lack of emotional maturity but also results in the loss of credibility on the part of the manager. 

Managers must realize that it pays to listen and learn from subordinates because they know their jobs best, Managers must also be humble enough to admit mistakes and take appropriate action to rectify the situation. Employees must be encouraged to provide constructive criticism without fear of any negative consequences. Organizations can do way with “yes-men” who are the greatest enemy of productivity improvement. 

2. Failing to Provide Regular Work Performance Feedback 

Another common failing of most managers is not providing regular performance feedback to their subordinates. Many managers make the mistake of treating performance feedback as once-a-year formal process i.e. only during the annual performance appraisal interview. Many managers feel uncomfortable providing negative performance feedback to their subordinates. They also tend to hold back positive feedback. 

Regular performance feedback is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, employees generally yearn to know how well they are performing in the eyes of their superiors. If they are not performing according to expectations, they can take remedial action to improve their work performance without waiting for the annual appraisal interview. Secondly, research has shown that objective feedback enhances work performance of employees. Thirdly, feedback motivates employees when it is positive. 

Performance feedback should be a continual process. Managers should continually provide informal work performance appraisal – point out mistakes made by employees, help employees rectify errors and praise them for a job well done. In this regard, the yearly performance appraisal should not contain any “surprises” for the subordinates. To be effective, feedback should be objective, timely, specific, impersonal, intended to help the employee, and tactful in the case of negative feedback. 

3. Taking Good Work for Granted

Taking good work for granted is a serious error committed by many managers. Managers have the tendency to withhold praise for a job repeatedly well done but are quick to criticize even if it is poorly done once. An ex-colleague of mine had an unpleasant experience with her boss. Nine out of ten times, she did her job well but the boss did not utter a single word of praise. She bungled once and the boss blew his top which finally led to her resignation. In her own words, “I would rather earn a lower salary than work for an ungrateful boss”. The lesson of this incident is simple: Managers must be quick to praise and slow to criticize. Never take good work for granted. Simple praise such as “good job, keep it up!” goes a long way in motivating employees to further improve their job performance.

4. Showing Favouritism

Another common managerial error is showing favouritism. I know of one CEO who almost wrecked an organization by giving meritorious service awards to his undeserving favourite employees. Favouritism demotivates employees and eventually leads to decreased productivity. Managers must always be fair to all employees and reward them based on work performance, not on race, sex, personality or looks. 

5. Not Practising Leadership by Example 

Some common poor examples set by managers are being late to work and meetings; taking long lunch breaks; misusing organizational facilities for personal gain; lacking integrity; sweeping problems under the carpet; ignoring safety rules; and accepting poor quality work. 

Leadership by Example is important as employees generally look at their managers as role models. Employees tend to imitate the behaviour of their superiors. As aptly stated by Peter Drucker, “People perform to the standards of their leaders.” Leadership by Example also helps to bring out the best in employees. 

Managers should set good examples for employees to follow. They should adhere to organizational behavioural norms; demonstrate work competence; set high standards; meet work deadlines; encourage open and honest communication; be willing to admit mistakes; and treat all employees equitably. In short, managers must practise what they preach. 

6. Lack of Planning and Preventive Measures 

Another common error committed by managers is poor planning and not practising preventive management. They do not prioritize their goals; fail to develop proper action plans to attain predetermined goals; overlook measures to prevent problems from occurring; and do not have contingency plans. In short, they are reactive instead of being proactive. 

Planning is every manager’s job and the need for it exists at all levels. Planning plays a critical role in enhancing organizational and managerial performance. Planning provides a clear sense of direction; helps to identify opportunities and to anticipate problems; and it facilitates optimum utilization of resources. Indeed, the other managerial functions of organizing, leading and controlling depend on good planning. 

To ensure effective planning, managers should establish goals, prioritize the goals and develop action plans to attain them. Goals should be verifiable, specific, attainable, time-bounded and mutually agreed upon with subordinates. Goals can be prioritized according to the following three major categories: 

A: Must do goals which are critical to organizational or departmental performance. B: Should do goals which are necessary for improved performance but can be deferred if necessary. C: Nice to do goals which are desirable but not critical for improved performance and can be postponed indefinitely or eliminated. 

Another effective priority-setting tool is Pareto Principle or 80/20 Rule. Managers should focus their attention on 20% of the activities which can contribute towards 80% of the desired results. Finally, managers should also be proactive. Quality should be built into the work processes to prevent problems or defects from occurring. Managers should also prepare contingency plans i.e. how to respond if the original plans don’t work out. 

7. Not Letting Employees Know What is Expected of Them 

Some managers are guilty of not letting their subordinates know exactly what is expected of them in terms of accepted behaviour and work performance. This often results in interpersonal conflict; low morale among employees; and loss of valuable time in completing irrelevant tasks. 

Managers must let employees know what their jobs are; why their jobs are important; how they fit into the organization’s operations and what results are generally expected of them. These actions are likely to motivate employees as they make them feel important and promote a sense of belonging. 

8. Failing to Develop Subordinates

Some managers overlook their role of developing their subordinates due primarily to their preoccupation with climbing up the corporate ladder. They often view subordinates as mere tools in ensuring the attainment of their personal goals. Subordinates are appreciative of superiors who take a special interest in their personal development and promotion. This is particularly important for competent and achievement-oriented employees. Managers should promote employee self-development through delegation of challenging tasks, relevant training, job enrichment, job rotation, and participation in the decision-making process related to their work.

9. Failing to Set Work Goals and Performance Standards 

Based on empirical evidence, the establishment of challenging goals and high performance standards leads to increased productivity. Employees generally deliver what is expected of them by their bosses and behave according to how they are treated. Employees treated as “superstaff” tend to live up to that image. Challenging goals and performance standards also add meaning to work and increase job satisfaction. As such, managers must set challenging but attainable goals and performance standards which are mutually agreed upon by top management and employees. Employees must clearly understand what they will be held accountable for and against what standards their performance will be measured. In this regard, incompetence and shoddy work should not be tolerated. Managers should aim for “doing the right things right the first time”. 

10. Losing Sight of Important Goals

  1. Losing sight of important goals is another common failing of managers. Many managers end up spending most of their time solving day-to-day problems that have marginal impact on their unit’s productivity while others get completely sidetracked by new problems. Managers must always prioritize their goals and continuously keep track of them. They should differentiate between the “vital few” goals and the “trivial many” goals.

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