Seven Surprises for New Managers

Common Management Misconceptions to Avoid


As a new manager or leader, you might think that you know what to expect and what new skills you'll need to develop in your new role. However, new managers can come unstuck in unexpected ways.

Michael Porter, Jay Lorsch, and Nitin Nohria explored common misconceptions about management in a 2004 Harvard Business Review article titled, "Seven Surprises for New CEOs." [1] Although their observations were of people in senior roles, you can also apply their findings to other management positions. And they remain relevant today, as new managers and leaders continue to experience these same uncomfortable surprises.

In this article, we'll take a closer look at each of the seven surprises, and we'll help you to be more prepared for them in your role, whether you're managing an organization, a department, or a small team.

See the transcript for this video here.

New Manager Surprise One: You Can't Run the Company or Department

As a new manager, you first need to accept that you can't be directly involved in every project that your team is working on, and that you can't have a direct influence on everything that happens within it.

So, your perspective has to shift from getting jobs done yourself, to getting things done through other people. This may sound obvious, but many new managers struggle with it!

To avoid the problems associated with this surprise:

  • Give people the guidance and resources that they need to do their jobs themselves. This frees you up to do the job of managing and leading your team members, and empowers them.
  • Be careful not to make too many decisions for people. For example, when someone comes to you with a question, ask them what they recommend.
  • Use delegation effectively.
  • Only attend meetings that you really need to attend.
  • Question whether you need to participate in tasks, or simply be informed of their outcomes.

New Manager Surprise Two: Giving Orders Is Costly

Good managers don't need to tell people what to do. Instead, they trust their team members to make the right decisions.

Some people may doubt their ability to make decisions. When this happens, they're more likely to come to you for approval of everything. This creates "manager dependency," and can make you a decision-making bottleneck, potentially stalling your team's progress.

Also, avoid making last-minute changes, or overruling decisions, as this can not only waste time and resources but also undermine your people's confidence.

To avoid the problems associated with this surprise:

  • Communicate your organization's vision and values, keep people informed, and train them so that they can make decisions based on what's best for the organization.
  • Create systems and structures so that your people understand what needs to get done, and how to do it.
  • Endorse effective decision-making tools, and demonstrate how to use them.
  • Reassure team members that mistakes are part of the development process, and that taking risks is often better than indecision. Clearly, this may not be suitable in all types of work, so use your best judgment.
  • Recognize how placing trust in people impacts your team's performance.

New Manager Surprise Three: It's Hard to Know What's Really Going On

No one wants to give their boss bad news. So it's likely that by the time word gets back to you, it may have had a few glossy touches added, and it won't necessarily be reliable.

However, you need accurate information to manage effectively, so it's vital that you stay "in the loop" by gathering information from as many sources as possible.

To avoid the problems associated with this surprise:

  • Use management by wandering around. This keeps you in contact with people throughout the organization, and allows you to see and hear first-hand what's going on.
  • Build strong relationships with your customers and suppliers.
  • Analyze all of your stakeholders, and communicate with them often to ensure that you know what they're thinking.

New Manager Surprise Four: You're Always Sending a Message

As a manager, your words and actions carry a lot of weight. People will speculate about why you said or did something; and they'll try to interpret whether your words or actions contained any hidden messages. Your mood will also affect your team, positively or negatively.

Managers lead by example whether they want to or not. Developing self-awareness can help you to set a good example, and send the right messages to your team.

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To avoid the problems associated with this surprise:

  • Use simple and clear language when communicating with people.
  • Ask for clarification, and don't assume that people understand the real meaning of what you're saying.
  • Consider your body language, and use it to convey the right message.
  • Use storytelling to communicate the key messages that you want people to hear.
  • Be a good role model for your people, and lead by example.

New Manager Surprise Five: You Aren't the Boss

Just because you're the boss of your team, doesn't mean you're the top dog. Even business owners are ultimately accountable to their customers. You will always report to someone, so it's crucial that you don't get caught up in your own importance.

As a manager, you should know who you need to keep informed, and you should work hard to gain the support of those around you. You will also need to manage upward, and understand how you work with the people you report to. You can't let the flow of information stop with you, just because you're the manager.

To avoid the problems associated with this surprise:

  • Learn how to develop effective relationships with powerful people in your organization.
  • Find ways to collaborate with people that you report to, and to gain their trust.
  • Remember to share information and resources on regularly – both with your team, and with others.

New Manager Surprise Six: Pleasing Shareholders Is Not Always the Goal

Shareholders, whether these are traditional shareholders or other stakeholders in your department or organization, typically have a short-term perspective, and may be profit- or performance-oriented.

However, there are other longer-term considerations that are even more important than the goals of shareholders, and you need to be aware of these as a manager.

For instance, should company profits outweigh safety concerns that you have for your team? Do you push your team to finish a project unfeasibly early because your boss is putting pressure on you? If an executive is behaving inappropriately with members of your team, when do you decide to stand up for your people?

Making these types of decisions requires you to understand who you are ultimately accountable to.

To avoid the problems associated with this surprise:

  • Take some time to understand your personal values, and how they fit with company values.
  • Understand the vision of the company and what it stands for. Make decisions based on that vision and those values. And be sure to reward team behavior that promotes these values.
  • Create a Team Charter, and ensure that it's aligned with corporate strategy.
  • Attract and recruit people in your team who fit and build on the vision and values of your organization.
  • Understand value-based management – the idea that you should be chasing the best long-term value of your business, not sacrificing the future just to boost this quarter's earnings.

New Manager Surprise Seven: You're Only Human

As a manager you must remember that your position doesn't make you better or more capable than anyone else. You'll continue to make mistakes, and people around you will still have opinions that are different from yours.

However, being a manager does make you more responsible, and you need to demonstrate this responsibility.

To avoid the problems associated with this surprise:

  • Be humble and thankful, and reward the people around you who make you and your team look good.
  • Be accountable to yourself.
  • Use your emotional intelligence to remain connected with colleagues, family and friends.
  • Create your Wheel of Life, and remind yourself to find the balance you need to be the best you can be.

These key terms have been reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review. From "Seven Surprises for New CEOs" by Michael E. Porter, Jay W. Lorsch, Nitin Nohria, October 2004. Copyright © 2004 by the Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved.

Key Points

The seven surprises for new managers were first identified by Michael Porter, Jay Lorsch, and Nitin Nohria. The surprises highlight seven misconceptions that people have when they start out in a management or leadership role.

The seven surprises are:

  1. You can't run the company or department.
  2. Giving orders is costly.
  3. It's hard to know what's really going on.
  4. You're always sending a message.
  5. You aren't the boss.
  6. Pleasing shareholders is not always the goal.
  7. You're only human.

The transition to manager can be a challenge. But by being aware of these common misconceptions and the issues associated with them, you'll increase your chances of being successful.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (5)
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi plymouth_fastback,

    There is a lot of pressure to establish yourself as a manager early on, mostly to demonstrate that their promotion was well deserved. I've observed it and experienced it myself. The key is to carefully weigh the importance of the decisions one makes with the potential impact. As for your second point about some employees choosing to sit back and have the manager make all the decisions, this is true as well. There will always be a percentage of employees who are "doers" and wait to be told.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago plymouth_fastback wrote
    In my experience, some new managers feel the need to make lots of decisions early on. This is underpinned by issuing a load of instructions to go with them.

    It is all about making a mark early.

    This sets the tone.

    Also, I've had several colleagues over the years who are very happy to be told what to do. "You're paid to make the decisions... so make them!!"
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi darlic,

    This would be a great topic for the Forums. Why not drop by there and start a thread. Perhaps include the link to this page as a reference point?

    Mind Tools Team
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