How to Avoid 5 Common Manager Mistakes That Crush Workplace Culture

Available for Interviews: Dara Barlin

Dara Barlin is the Founder & CEO of the Center for Transforming Culture and the author of the new book, A New Kind of Power: Using Human-Centered Leadership to Drive Innovation, Equity, and Belonging in Government Institutions.


What Dara Barlin Can say in an interview on
Common Manager Mistakes & Solutions for Success:

There are a number of traditional management behaviors that have been commonplace in the workplace for centuries. While these strategies served a purpose for a while, they have recently been linked with destroying team culture and creating big problems for organizations including employee apathy, lower quality work, increased attrition, more sick days, more conflict, and worse overall outcomes. The good news is, many organizations are starting to change things up by adopting behaviors aligned with a more human-centered approach to management. In doing so, they’ve seen a big difference in the workplace, including more trust, improved collaboration, increased innovation, higher quality work, and better talent retention. Here are some common behaviors to look out for if you want to create a thriving work environment for your team (and some suggestions for what to do about them).

1. Telling People What to Do
and How to do it

We used to have a factory-based model of leadership. Tell people what and how to do something, then they do it. Now we know about ‘Reactive Theory—that telling people what to do triggers a negative response in the brain. It takes away a basic human need, feeling a sense of agency/freedom. They will likely do the thing you told them to do because they don’t want to lose their job—but you may pay the price later when you lose their trust and passion for the work. When you are considering a strategy that you want someone to implement, ask them questions about how best they think to do it. Or better yet, ask their opinion before you fully define the strategy. Honoring their knowledge and giving them agency to figure out some of the steps will increase their trust in you, deepen their passion for the project, and greatly improve the outcomes of the task. 

2. Assuming you know what people
on your team are thinking

Hate to break the news, but if you supervise people, odds are you DON’T know what your staff thinks about you or your leadership efforts. We’re taught not to tell higher-ups what we think when it’s not good because we want to keep our jobs and not rock the boat. That means you might not be perceived as that incredible boss you think you are in your head. To address this issue you must take measures to go the extra distance and ensure employees know they will not be penalized for speaking their truth. Take team members out for one-on-one coffee or lunch, build rapport, and ask them to give you critical feedback that can help you grow as a manager. Make sure they know there will be no negative repercussions! You can also try 360 evaluations or regular anonymous surveys that ask team members to be honest about problems (and successes). Make sure to share out in staff meetings or full-staff emails about changes you are making to show you are actually listening to and trying to implement the feedback you are getting. When team members see the effort you are putting in, not only will it earn their trust and get you better quality work, it will also make it more likely they will seek feedback to do their own self-growth work in the future.

3. Giving team members long lists
of things to do

I know you have a lot to accomplish, but think about it—when someone gives you an unending list of things to do, and you feel overwhelmed, how much actually gets done? Often none, right? Giving laundry lists of things to do means that people don’t have the capacity to do any of it well. This creates a sense of panic that leads to inaction, high burnout, poor physical and mental health, and obviously much worse outcomes. Review and prioritize the many ‘To-Do’ items on your staff’s plate. If you can, engage your employees in the process of prioritizing so they feel they have agency around their workload. Try to focus on just one or two tasks for each employee at a time. Doing so will build trust and vastly improve the outcomes you get. Remember the mantra: “You can do all things! You just can’t do them all at once.”

4. Expect people to change their
behavior completely, right away

Sure you have people on your team that have room for growth in some areas. But telling them to change their behavior will often be ineffective and lead to frustration and resentment. Chances are, if they are doing something uncool, they’ve been doing it for a while and don’t know how to do it otherwise. Or they have developed such a strong habit that it will take more than words to modify their brain waves towards a new way of doing things. If you say, “change your behavior” this could lead to them feeling fear and anxiety that they are being asked to do something they don’t feel capable of, without any additional support. If someone is engaging in behavior not aligned with your vision, help them improve by coaching them. That means asking questions, offering support, giving encouragement, and following up with them regularly so they can be successful. If this is a recurring issue, work together to find a half-step—this is the space between where they are now, and where you want them to be. It’ll make it much easier for them to change course, and is on the way to modifying the behavior fully. Once they’ve succeeded, celebrate their accomplishment first. Then reopen the conversation and gently support them in going the rest of the distance.   

5. Punishing or getting angry at team
members for making mistakes

Everyone gets upset about mistakes. They are annoying and sometimes infuriating because they take the work off track. But getting angry or threatening to take action against someone when they make a mistake is kinda the worst thing you can do as a boss. They didn’t MEAN to make the mistake. That’s why it’s called a mistake! If you yell, write them up, or threaten them in any way—it will cause them to lose trust with you, and they will likely begin disengaging, pushing back, or producing lower quality work later on. That will mess up your long game and could lead to a toxic workplace. Instead, take a breath, take a walk, look at kittens on the internet, play ping pong—whatever. Just distract your brain for a bit and come back when you are a bit more chill so you can address the issue clearly. Then use the mistake as a ‘teachable moment’ to help your team member learn and grow from the experience. While you are there, work with them to modify current team structures so there are no repeat mistakes in the future. Addressing mistakes from a calm mindset (rather than angry/panic mode) will get you to a better solution much faster and will also maintain trust to keep employees engaged and doing great work over the long term. 

None of us are perfect. But understanding how our own subtle behaviors affect the culture of our workplace offers a roadmap to creating that high-trust, high-performing team we all dream of having. 


Interview: Dara Barlin

is the founder of the Center for Transforming Culture. She has over two decades of experience facilitating trust-building conversations, conducting research to inform policy and leading grassroots campaigns for positive change. Dara’s research has been featured in the United Nations, US Congress, UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research, Women in Government, and Harvard Education Spotlight Series. She was the lead author of another book published by Harvard Education Press focusing on transforming education and has written numerous articles on how to support positive culture change for the World Policy Journal, Huffington Post, and Education Week.  In 2012, she led a global campaign that helped to build trust and develop a common blueprint for positive change across 97 countries.  Dara has a Master’s with honors in Public Policy from the London School of Economics and graduated Magna Cum Laude from Barnard College.

Barlin is the author of the new book, A New Kind of Power: Using Human-Centered Leadership to Drive Innovation, Equity, and Belonging in Government Institutions.

Jo Allison
Managing Editor
Director of Public Relations
Success In Media, Inc.



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