The Biggest Mistake Managers Make

Top-Down - Wrong Leadership Style

For many years, I ran around telling the people that worked for me what to do. I was very good at it. Considered great at my job. Promoted early and often.

Then I discovered it was absolutely the wrong thing to do. It was a big mistake.

I knew this because after I stopped – and instead began listening and responding to the complaints, suggestions, and questions of my people – performance shot up!

Most managers I meet and see, at every level, make this very same mistake over and over again. And most of you don’t know you are doing it because you believe your job, as the boss, is:

To plan, direct, and control the work of a group of individuals, to monitor that work, and to take corrective action when you deem necessary.

What you are really doing is resorting to the traditional top-down, command and control approach to managing people – exactly the one I used in my first years in the US Navy.

Some of you take it to the extreme – the micromanagers – while others are doing this only some of the time. Many of you even appear to be successful, like I was. However, through your direction and control, you are actually squashing performance and potential while building a largely unsustainable operation.

But why is directing and controlling a mistake?

There are two major reasons. First, no one likes being told what to do. Second, that approach causes you to miss loads of potential and indeed kill much of it.

Think about it, do you like orders? Do you like being told what to do or how to do it?

When you tell someone what to do or how to do it, the impression you leave is that you know best and/or that the person is not capable of doing the work. Impressions pile up. Many people endure this to keep their job or to get ahead, but no one truly likes orders and no one is motivated to do their best work when ordered around. This is simply human nature.

Thus, the top-down, command and control approach naturally demotivates, demoralizes, and demeans individuals and tends to damage the good we want to arise from them.

There are exceptions. A few people will seem not to be affected. They will prevail and succeed regardless of what their boss does. But again, they will not put forth their best work. Their output will be diminished. They will not reach their full potential.

Now, the possible performance gain from properly managing people is about 500%. That is no small gain which is why I quote it often. It is huge! Stephen Covey Sr. stated it and my own experience bears out his contention, but only after I shifted away from top-down.

So then, by de-motivating people with command and control, a huge amount of creativity, innovation, and productivity goes unrealized. You also may contribute to a reduced quality of life for yourself and those you manage.

Why do most of us make this mistake?

We are taught to direct and control from an early age by an authoritarian society. Then when we enter the workforce, we hear and see more of the same. We aren’t really ever taught how to manage people. We are taught to control the work, to get it done, as portrayed in the pyramid below.


The pyramid even appears to make sense. Take a look at it. All the right parts are included to deliver success.

The foundation of the pyramid is the most important. As the most important part, you can’t help thinking that you will be held accountable for planning, organizing, directing and controlling. “I must be certain to do everything I can to succeed and get it done” and so it begins.

”Here are our goals and objectives for this year.”
“We must do better.”
“Do it like this.”
“We need…. Get me ….”
“You do this. So-and-so will do that.”

What happens after directing and controlling?

Next, we are given the job of motivating our people – in the second level of that pyramid. But you have just de-motivated them. How, pray tell, can you motivate them? You buried them in directions and controls. Now you want them to jump? Charisma, influence and communication skills will not help you.

The few top performers on your team will pull off the jump…sometimes…while you likely struggle with the rest and begin to accept that as the way things are.

“At least I have a few good people… We’ll have to hire better people next time.” Then what do you do with the mediocre and poor performers? Direct and control them more!

Flip that pyramid.

There it is then. From my own years of managerial experience (including my own mistakes) and watching hundreds of managers, without a doubt the biggest mistake a manager can make is to direct and control people to get the work done.

This is not your job, nor is it the most effective path. You limit your own results, arbitrarily, when employing that approach and generate problems with people you don’t need…even when you only direct and control a little bit, or think you only do it a little bit.

Ditch top-down.

Flip that pyramid upside-down.

Support them with what they need to become self-directed and they will astound you!


This is Part 1 of a six-part leadership training mini-series – we are clearing up major misunderstandings about leadership.

Go to Don’t Get Tripped Up for the full series.

And if you want to know exactly what to do instead of the top-down approach, pick up a copy of Ben’s book – Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed.

Questions for Ben? Click here. We’ll address them in a future email blast, blog post and/or video.

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