5 Tough Challenges for Managers and How to Tackle Them

No matter what industry they are in, every manager experiences key pain points—those perennial challenges that get in the way of accomplishing organizational objectives and achieving productivity goals. When objectives and goals aren’t met, it’s usually the manager who is held responsible.

Let’s take a look at five of the toughest challenges for managers and how to tackle them.

Challenge #1: Conflicting or unclear priorities

Are your people caught in an activity trap, where they are busy doing tasks, but not the right tasks? If your answer was yes, then it’s time to clarify goals with them. Although most managers agree with the importance of setting goals, most do not take the time to clearly develop goals with their team members and write them down.

Solution: Set clear goals. Effective performance management always begins with clear, observable, measurable goals. Meet with each direct report and establish observable and measurable goals around each of their key areas of responsibility. Then you and they will have clear performance indicators to help determine whether they are making progress or need coaching to improve.

Challenge #2: Disengaged employees

Have you noticed declining engagement in any of your people? Often managers avoid dealing with disengaged employees because they don’t know how. Sometimes when they talk to their people, they make matters worse by criticizing what they perceive as a lack of commitment. Unfortunately, this often turns the not engaged into the actively disengaged!

Solution: Provide support.

While it may seem counterintuitive to impatient managers, providing a supportive leadership style is the best way to remotivate someone who is disengaged. Talk to the person and find out what’s getting in the way of their engagement. Ask them how you can help remove any obstacles. Are performance expectations clear? Do they need a different leadership style from you? Do they need more feedback? Finally, remember to catch people doing things right, even if they’re doing things only approximately right. Cheering people on with specific, meaningful praise boosts morale and reinforces behavior that moves them closer to their goals. When you praise progress, you strengthen your relationships and improve results.

Challenge #3: Poor performance

Just as managers often avoid dealing with disengaged employees, they often avoid dealing with poor performance. By not saying anything, managers are essentially rewarding poor performance.

When Spencer Johnson and I published The One Minute Manager in 1982, we recommended that managers give a quick “reprimand” of the unsatisfactory behavior—not the individual—to help them get back on track. Today, side-by-side leadership is proving far more effective. Because technology and other changes are happening so fast, people are almost always in a learning mode. Punishing a learner is never appropriate, so in The New One Minute Manager, Spencer and I changed the Third Secret to “One Minute Re-Directs.” When people are clear on the goal and still learning but their performance isn’t up to standard, redirection is far more effective than a reprimand.

Solution: Redirect mistakes.

To give a One Minute Re-Direct, take the following steps:

  1. Redirect the person as soon as possible.
  2. As the leader, be sure you have made the goal clear. If not, clarify the goal.
  3. Confirm the facts first and review the error together. Be specific about what went wrong.
  4. Let the person know how you feel about the error and its impact on results.
  5. Pause for a moment to allow them time to feel the effect of the error.
  6. Tell them they are better than their mistake and you think well of them.
  7. Remind them that you have trust in them and support their success.

The aim of redirection is to build people up so they will continue to move toward good performance.

Challenge #4: Communication breakdowns

In too many organizations big communication gaps exist between managers and employees. Often, managers are using top-down communication only. They assume that things are working smoothly, when in fact employees feel unheard and dissatisfied. Because of these communication gaps, both relationships and results suffer.

Solution: Have regular one-on-one meetings.

To get information flowing with your people, encourage your direct reports to schedule regular 15- to 30-minute meetings with you at least once every month. During these meetings, people can talk to you about anything on their hearts and minds—it’s their meeting. These meetings have multiple benefits: they inform both the manager and the direct report, foster problem-solving, deepen relationships, and increase job satisfaction. Remember that as a manager, the best moment you spend is the one you invest in your people.

Challenge #5: Too much to do, not enough time

Many if not most managers complain that they have too few hours in the day to accomplish all that needs to be done. In actuality, no one has more time than anyone else; we all have the same 24-hour day. The problem is that many managers take on issues that their people should be solving.

Solution: Help your people become self-reliant achievers.

When you stop doing your people’s work and hand back responsibility to them, you not only free up more time, but you also empower your people. Use SLII® skills to provide your direct reports with the support they need to become self-reliant achievers. This will free them to bring their brains to work and use their innate knowledge, experience, and motivation to accomplish goals.

Put these techniques into practice on an ongoing basis. Remember, good management is a lifestyle, not a fad diet! For more time-tested techniques, pick up a copy of my new book with Randy Conley, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust. Go here to download an eBook summary for a preview.

It’s Okay to Toot Your Own Horn

Some managers are hard on their people because they’re also hard on themselves. They’re always thinking, “I should’ve done that better” or “What a dummy I am, forgetting that detail.” Unfortunately, poor self-expectations sometimes can influence others’ perceptions. It’s not easy to be around people who are constantly putting themselves down or second-guessing themselves. It would be better if they occasionally caught themselves doing something right.

When you catch yourself doing things right, everything in your life will improve—especially your relationships. Why? Because it’s fun to be around people who like themselves. After all, if you’re not your own best friend, who will be? And as my dad used to say, “If you don’t toot your own horn, others might use it as a spittoon!”

Here’s how to make this commonsense truth common practice:

When someone says something nice to you or does something nice for you, accept it graciously. Allowing people to catch you doing something right makes both you and the other person feel good.

  • If someone praises your work, don’t say “Yes, but . . .” Instead, tell them you appreciate their noticing.
  • Along the same lines, when someone pays you a compliment, simply smile and say “Thank you.” Don’t downplay the compliment or disagree with them—that’s like telling the person they don’t have good judgment or aren’t very smart.

If you find yourself always giving credit to others for their good efforts—although there’s nothing wrong with that—remember that a little self-praise doesn’t hurt. So go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back once in a while! “It’s Okay to Toot Your Own Horn” is Simple Truth #17 in the new book I’ve coauthored with Randy Conley, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust. It’s on sale now at your favorite bookstore or online retailer. Go here to download an eBook summary for a preview!

How Coaching Has Helped Me—And How It Can Help You

I’ve talked a lot about how leaders can help people succeed through day-to-day coaching. In fact, our company recently offered a webinar called The Manager Who Can Coach: Bringing Coaching Skills into Your Organization, which you can view here.  

For my blog today, I wanted to share how coaching has helped me to be successful in various aspects of my life—and how it can help you. While some of these people didn’t have the formal title of “coach,” they had experience in the areas where I needed help.

A coach can give you what you can’t give yourself and provide the direction and support you need to succeed.

As a youth I had a great example of what coaching could do for me with my basketball coach, Paul Ryan. Paul coached me to focus on my strengths—in my case, my big hands and outside jump shot. While I wasn’t much of a runner, people nicknamed me “Hot Hands” because I was an excellent shooter.

A coach can help you set the goals that matter to you and keep you accountable as you move toward them.

Later in life, my affinity for food combined with my busy career made it difficult for me to keep my weight under control. When I finally decided to get serious about getting into shape, Tim Kearin, my coauthor on Fit at Last, became my primary fitness coach. We used SLII® to figure out the kind of leadership style I needed to get healthy. I now know that I need ongoing coaching and support to keep me accountable with my diet and exercise, so I work with a fitness coach on a regular basis. This is how I “keep my commitment to my commitment.”

A coach can improve your skills and deepen your knowledge.

I was never a great student. My first intellectual coach was my brilliant sister, Sandy, who taught me good study habits. In college I found coaches who guided my academic career. During graduate school at Colgate University, Warren Ramshaw coached me to find a major that really captured my interest. Later, Don McCarty helped me get accepted into the doctoral program at Cornell and coached me as I pursued my PhD.

As a writer, I also consider the dozens of coauthors I’ve had over the years to be my intellectual coaches. Every one of them exposed me to new learning and helped me drill down into subjects that interested me.

A coach can clarify next steps, ask smart questions, and keep you moving forward toward your goals.

In the late 1970s a group of presidents who were members of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) encouraged my wife Margie and me to start our own company. We were flattered by their high opinion of us, but in those days we couldn’t even balance our own checkbook! Fortunately, five of those presidents became our business coaches and helped us get our company going.

Twenty-five years ago, we began using professional advisors for our family business. We wanted to make sure the business didn’t mess up our family—and vice versa! An advisor meets with us once a quarter, giving us invaluable coaching.

A coach can help you gain self-knowledge and improve your relationships.

One of my weaknesses is that I’m a pleaser and tend to say “yes” too often. That’s why it’s important for me to work with a coach to look at what I’m doing and help me set priorities that align with my purpose.

My wife Margie and I are always looking for ways to improve our relationship and how we communicate with each other, so we’ve worked with several relationship coaches over the years. The key to a good marriage is being open to learning.

When we met Norman Vincent Peale and his wife, Ruth, in the 1980s, we learned how important it is to be a team when you’re married. We observed that they each had their strength areas and didn’t try to tell the other one what to do. Every morning Norman and Ruth would take a two-mile walk together, holding hands, but they wouldn’t talk. They called it their “alone time together.” When it came to the teamwork of marriage, Norman and Ruth were great coaches for us.

A coach can give you perspective and someone to confide in.

After seeing how badly my old church treated a pastor who protested the Vietnam War back in the 1960s, I turned my back on my spiritual side. Fortunately for me, I found a great spiritual coach in Norman Vincent Peale when we got together to write The Power of Ethical Management. Norman gave me a broader perspective and helped me get back onto my spiritual path. Since then, I’ve had several great spiritual coaches, including Bob Buford, coauthor of Half-Time and founder of The Leadership Network, Phil Hodges, my long-time friend and coauthor, and Bill Hybels, former senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church.

Take Advantage of Coaching

If you’re avoiding doing something just because you’ve never done it before, a coach can help you with that.

If you’re stuck in any area of your life, a coach can help you identify what’s stopping you and find ways around your roadblocks.

Take a look at your life. Where are you now—and where do you want to be? Where do you need more direction and support? Be honest with yourself about the areas where you’re not able to succeed on your own, and find a coach to help you with them.

To get the most out of a coaching relationship, you’ll need to be honest with your coach about what’s happening and where you need help. You’ll also need more than one session. Coaching is most effective when you meet regularly over an agreed-upon period of time.

My final advice is to let go of your pride and stop struggling on your own. Go get yourself a coach!

Want to Give Your People More Autonomy? Set Boundaries First!

This may seem to be a contradiction in terms, but the very best way for organizations to begin developing a culture of empowerment is to set boundaries. By boundaries I don’t mean restrictive, barbed wire fences that tell people where they can and can’t go; I’m talking about flexible, rubber band guidelines that are able to expand to allow people to take on more responsibility and autonomy in relation to their skill level.

Some leaders believe giving people autonomy means allowing them the freedom to do anything they want to do. But that’s not true. Just as river banks allow a river to flow, effective boundaries help channel people’s energy in the right direction. Giving people freedom within boundaries empowers them to grow, develop, and accomplish their goals in a way that makes sense.

A great example of boundary setting is budgeting. People who lack the skills to set budgets are given a boundary—a spending limit—before being given more responsibility. They are also given the training and skill development needed to enable them to handle greater autonomy.

Again, even though it may sound illogical, organizations must have a fundamental structure in place before they can create a true autonomous culture. This structure includes a common purpose, values, and goals, individual job roles, specific incentives and other motivators, along with models of appropriate behavior and measures of success. Basic structure elements also can include company rules, policies, and procedures, of course—but with the provision of allowing people to use their brains to make exceptions when a policy doesn’t make sense.

Team members may think autonomy means they immediately get to make all the decisions—and they may be disappointed when they learn their manager will continue to make strategic decisions. But as people learn from their manager what goes into decision making, and as they become more comfortable assuming the inherent risks, their manager will involve them in operational decisions. Through regular training, people gradually become accountable for their decisions and the potential consequences, and managers pull back on their involvement in decision making. These guidelines allow managers and their people to operate freely within their newly defined roles.

A true culture of empowerment involves establishing boundaries, providing structure and training, and then getting out of the way and trusting your people to be magnificent.

What Principles Are on Your Belief Window?

Many years ago, my late, great friend Hyrum Smith was a member of a team that discovered the Reality Model, a brilliant visual way of describing how people look at life. Hyrum was so taken by the concepts in the model that he spent much of the rest of his life traveling around  and spreading the life-changing message to businesses, schools, churches, and even prisons. The ideas in the model aren’t new, but they are remarkably relevant for today. Why? Because the Reality Model helps people see the world as it really is.

The main concept of the Reality Model is the idea that each of us has a Belief Window through which we observe the world around us. On our Belief Window are thousands of principles we believe to be true about ourselves, our world, and other people. Most of these principles are an attempt to meet a basic human need such as to live, to love and be loved, to feel important, or to have variety. Some principles, such as “the Earth is round,” reflect reality, and some, such as “dogs are better than cats,” are subjective. Either way, we believe them to be true and we will behave as if they are—because our beliefs drive our behavior.

That said, the key to effective living is to continually identify the changing principles on our Belief Windows, look at the results they give us, and ask an important question: Will these results meet my needs over time? If the answer is yes,it usually means it is a valid belief for us. If the answer is no, we can chalk it up as a lousy belief and choose to either get rid of it or change it.

Let me give you a personal example. I once found myself tipping the scale at more than thirty pounds over my normal weight. My wife, Margie, asked me what my philosophy of eating was—particularly when I was consulting and teaching on the road. I answered, “If I’ve been working hard, I deserve to eat anything I want at night.” She said, “So how is that working for you?” I had to admit, it wasn’t fun carrying around the burden of that extra weight. These results weren’t meeting my needs over time. I needed to make a change.

Now remember: beliefs drive behavior. I realized that before my behavior could change, what I believed about eating had to change. I had to find an alternative principle. After much thought, I came up with this: “If I’ve been working hard, I deserve to eat a healthy dinner so I can sleep well and feel good about myself.” My revised principle helped me, over time, to get the results I wanted—and evaluating my Belief Window was instrumental in helping me turn my health around.

Why am I sharing these thoughts with you today? In the past eighteen months, we all have been carrying around the burden of living through a pandemic. Each of us has faced our own challenges—physical health, mental health, jobs, finances, etc. Many people’s lives have been turned upside down in too many ways to count. I’d like to suggest we all take a look at the principles that have formed on our Belief Windows and determine whether or not they have been meeting our needs over time.

For example, let’s say you have this principle on your Belief Window: “I’m afraid to leave the house. The world is a scary place.” Is that a lousy belief or is it a valid belief? Have the results of your behavior met your needs over time? If they haven’t, perhaps you could adopt an alternative principle that would meet your needs better. How about this: “Walking my dog after breakfast is a safe way for me to get back into life.” Will that alter your behavior in a positive way? Yes, it will.

Or maybe there’s been a change in what is important to you: “I’m not looking forward to going back to my office. Working from home makes me happier and I get more work done.” Is that a lousy belief or a valid belief? Have those results met your needs over time? If you think they have, talk to your supervisor—perhaps you can make working from home a permanent choice.   

When you discover that certain principles have helped you find peace of mind, hold on to them. When you uncover beliefs that haven’t been working for you, get rid of them or come up with alternatives that can help you change your results for the better. And don’t forget the phrase over time—because results take time to measure.

Are the results of your beliefs and behavior meeting your needs? Following this model won’t improve everything overnight. But becoming aware of your principles and applying the concepts of the Belief Window may be a step in the right direction.