What First-Time Managers Should Never Say

Once you break your team's trust as a boss, it's hard to earn it back.
Too many first-time managers overpromise and underdeliver.
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Too many first-time managers overpromise and underdeliver.

Becoming a manager for the first time is a hard job ― and one that many of us lack guidance on how to do well.

“Most people haven’t been trained for managing,” said Lawrese Brown, the founder of C-Track Training, a workplace education company. “The way they approach things when they get in the seat is they either just mimic what others have done or be reactionary, meaning something was done to them and they were like ‘What?’ and so then they go in the other direction.”

If you’re a first-time manager, how you talk to your team is critical for setting expectations and boundaries about how work gets done and how people can grow within the company. Once you break a team member’s trust, it’s hard to get it back.

Here are some of the biggest phrases and promises you want to avoid saying as a first-time manager:

1. ‘Message me anytime something comes up.’

Having an open-door policy sounds wonderful in theory, but in reality saying you are always available is “setting yourself up to be constantly interrupted, which will impact your ability to do your work,” Brown said. “Because you are at the center of how everything gets done, you’ll never feel like you can go away.”

In this way, telling your team you are constantly available holds back your career development and it holds back your team’s as well. In worst-case scenarios, you are teaching your team to become dependent on you for getting their work done if they do not get a response from you, Brown said.

A better way is for managers to be upfront about their boundaries of when it’s best to communicate and how to do it based on the urgency of a question, Brown said.

2. ‘I’ll tell you everything.’

“In an effort to demonstrate their authenticity and likability, a pitfall of new managers is to promise, or set a precedent, with their new teams that they will share everything with them,” said Angela Karachristos, a career coach who has worked in human resources.

While sharing can be instrumental in creating trust and cohesion on a team, Karachristos said, there may be times when complete transparency is neither possible nor appropriate.

“Transitioning from an individual contributor to a manager of others means the days of oversharing, having a vocal opinion about leadership’s decisions and speculating on team members’ motives are over,” she said. “New managers have to find ways to bring the team together, and there are times when there may be things better left unsaid.”

It’s better for managers to promise they will be honest and open with their team to every extent possible, and their actions should back that up, Karachristos said.

As a boss, you also have to be careful about how casual you are when sharing details, too. “First-time managers may also try to treat their direct reports as friends, and be overly familiar with them,” said career coach Anne Genduso. “This includes sharing intimate details, personal information, or informally addressing them like ‘Bro’ or ‘Hey, girl.’”

3. ‘I’ll get the ball rolling on this.’

Brown said open-ended promises like “I’ll get the ball rolling on this” are not effective because they can give false hope that the request will definitely happen and implies “eventually we’ll get to the destination.”

Brown gave the example of raise requests: If you’re a first-time manager, you likely do not oversee the budget, so promising to put a raise request in motion is not something you can guarantee, she said.

This desire commonly comes from a good place of wanting to be the boss you did not have. “We’ve all had a bad manager,” Brown said. “We didn’t feel like they were our champions and I think all of this is what we go in wanting to be without realizing what the process is.”

But in reality, it’s better to explain the expectations with language like, “I’ll talk to my supervisor and give you feedback,” than to make a vague reassurance and later disappoint your direct report, Brown said.

4. ‘Let’s get in the weeds of this minor detail.’

As an individual contributor, focusing so much on technical aspects of the job, or “getting into the weeds,” may have made you a star employee, but it can be your downfall as a new manager.

When a new manager reaches the level of leadership where others are looking for direction, team members want to hear about how their work connects to the bigger picture or plan, Karachristos said. Employees do not want to go down rabbit holes.

“New managers that bog down their team with details about how to get work done run the risk of being labeled a micromanager or short-sighted,” Karachristos said. “That’s not to say that technical expertise isn’t important, but new managers need to demonstrate both operational and strategic thinking.”

5. ‘It’s not that big of a deal.’

First-time managers are often uncomfortable with offering corrections and feedback, so they commonly use phrases like “It’s not that big of a deal” to come off less harsh, Brown said.

But instead of reassuring direct reports, these kind of statements just confuse them further.

“If it’s not that big of a deal, then why are you mentioning it?” Brown said. “That whole statement minimizes everything you just said. Even if it was a serious conversation, the person then is confused. ... ‘So then I’m not supposed to act on this?’”

Instead of minimizing their feedback, Brown said, it’s better for managers to be upfront about why they are offering it in the first place and what they are trying to correct with language like, “I don’t want you to panic, I don’t want you to feel like you’re not doing a good job, but I do want to highlight this to you.”

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