First-time managers relax, you don’t need to have all the answers

Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock

Run a Google search on the rookie mistakes that new managers tend to make, and you’ll be spoiled for choice.

There are lists galore as well as references to books crammed with catalogues of blunders and miscalculations.

It would appear there’s no end to the pitfalls and perils that face first-time managers – everything from not delegating enough and appearing authoritarian, to communicating poorly and being too nice.

But there’s one mistake that is often overlooked and which I’d like to add. It is based on my own experience of working with and training new managers, and having been one myself.

Too often, first-time managers believe that they must have all the answers.

This can be exacerbated when the people they are managing are older than them.

The truth is that even the most celebrated leaders work with a legion of experts at their beck and call.

The pressure comes both from within and without. It’s easy for new managers to assume that they’ve been promoted because they are good at what they do and are better at it than some of their peers.

This pressure to demonstrate competence can be fuelled by subordinates who are only too happy to take no responsibility and knock at a manager’s door for answers to every question.

But all the confidence in the world is usually not enough to smooth the transition into management. Yes you are good at what you do, but managing and leading others brings with it a whole new range of challenges that need a new skill-set.

And in navigating this new terrain, a little bit of humility – and some courage – can go a long way. It’s about understanding your own strengths and foibles and learning to trust your team.

Despite management gurus such as Steve Jobs and others coming across as knowing everything, the truth is that even the most celebrated leaders work with a legion of experts at their beck and call.

As Socrates famously commented: “The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.”

It’s noticeable how regularly new managers fall into the trap of thinking they must have all the answers and solve everyone’s problems.

Perhaps it’s a response to a culture that promotes competition rather than collaboration.

And this seems to hold true even as the evidence keeps mounting of the benefits of group learning, diversity of thought and collaboration for performance.

Studies abound on the merits, for example, of group learning in the classroom.

One study found a 30% difference in results when comparing two groups, one adopting a combination of problem-solving, discussions and group work, the other going through a process of traditional lecture-led teaching.

Over the past few decades, business schools especially have moved away from the traditional pedagogy where the lecturer speaks for hours and the students merely take notes, which they then study on their own.

It takes courage for people to accept – and admit to others – that they are not all-knowing and may need help.

This move towards collaborative learning in part reflects an evolution in step with and assisted by advances in technology – students can now stay in touch even when on different continents.

One of the reasons business schools favour this approach is that it mimics the challenges students will encounter in the workplace.

To work effectively with others you must be able to appreciate differences, negotiate, delegate, network, challenge when the time is right, and also know when to keep quiet and learn from others.

Studies have shown that managers and leaders who learn to celebrate and encourage diversity of thought and to draw on the diversity in their teams perform better in the long run.

A good leader should be like the conductor of an orchestra. Their role is not to shout out instructions, but rather to get each person to contribute in a way that draws out their own genius to contribute to the whole.

Each performer works off a different score (just as we all have our own tasks in a business), and it is the job of the conductor to hold it all together, to get everyone to perform to the same tune and objective.

To do this well, high performing leaders and their teams need a strong sense of trust and psychological safety – the belief that they won’t be punished if they make a mistake or say what they really think or feel – and this is no easy thing to cultivate.

It takes courage for people to accept – and admit to others – that they are not all-knowing and may need help.

Which is why we spend a significant amount of our time with management students on understanding themselves and how they respond to situations.

In my own teaching, I have encountered many new managers who have only experienced a hierarchical, autocratic management style.

But they come to recognise, through personal insight and direct experience in a learning environment, the virtues of collaborating with and trusting those they manage.

In the age of Trump-style hubris it may be especially hard to imagine leaders and managers willing to acknowledge their own shortcomings and limitations, but without taking this all important step, their progress – and that of their team – will be stymied.

  • Jenny Boxall teaches on The New Manager short course, run in Cape Town and Johannesburg, by the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business. For more information go to

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