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4 traps that trip up new leaders

The leap from employee to leader requires new mindsets, skill development and a shift in identity.

5 min read


4 traps that trip up new leaders


Leading looks easy enough until you actually to step into the role. Without the proper development, mentoring and onboarding, new leaders often fall into four common traps that contribute to costly mistakes. This post is about the four traps that trip new leaders, and what to do instead.

Aligning downward

New managers often align downward because it’s the path of least resistance. Downward alignment happens when leaders support, collude and collaborate with subordinates instead of aligning with executive strategies. For example, there’s pressure from the C-suite to institute a new policy and the manager knows their employees won’t agree. Therefore, they tell their employees something like, “I don’t agree with this decision but …”

Downward alignment also sneaks up slowly and happens when the leader needs support or a sounding board.

Here’s why:  It’s tempting to vent to a subordinate who used to be a peer and a friend. The new leader forgets that the subordinate is also good friends with other employees. But, sharing private information with subordinates instigates gossip and hearsay, often resulting in departmental drama or even unwanted turnover. (Does it really take a white paper or statistics from Gallup to understand that a leader who instigates gossip is costly to the organization?)

What to do: Provide mentors for new supervisors. Explain the dangers of downward alignment and help them identify examples of downward alignment. Teach new managers to bring their concerns up the chain instead of downward.

Avoiding difficult conversations

When a long-term employee is surprised after being fired, it usually because someone avoided initiating difficult conversations. One of the biggest pitfalls of a new leader is their inability to initiate difficult performance conversations.

Here’s why: Managers don’t want to look incompetent to their boss. Where their employees are concerned, they want to be seen as being a “nice leader.” Where their execs are concerned, these leaders don’t want to send up any red flags that there are problems in their department. Finally, many leaders simply don’t have the leadership development they need to take initiative. Leaders who avoid set the stage for a discrimination or retaliation suit in the future.

According to Ashley Norgard, attorney with Kutak Rock, “Usually employment litigation is the result of leaders who waited too long to have necessary conversations. In many cases, I see a combination of poor performance management, ignorance of legal requirements and lack of leadership, but it usually all feeds back to lack of timely communication about performance issues.”

What to do: Provide your new leaders with leadership development so that they know how to take initiative in addressing complaints and handing people problems. Provide them with a good employee handbook and an orientation from the company attorney who can help them realize the role they play in protecting the company from unnecessary risk.

Shooting from the hip

The opposite of the avoiding leader is the leader who shoots from the hip. This leader is entrepreneurial and thrives on change. Although this type of leader takes action, they lack strategic thinking and often don’t consider the long-term effects of their decision-making. For example, the leader changes the work schedule without warning or decides to upgrade or downgrade titles without considering the culture, politics or possible turf wars that might erupt.

Here’s why: The leader is only looking at the solution from one point of view. They move parts and pieces around on their chessboard without considering how one move affects future moves.

What to do: Put some checks and balances in place for how much leeway you give to new or inexperienced leaders. Teach new leaders how to put contingent plans into place and how to run pilot programs so that there’s room to course-correct misjudgments.

Misplaced identity

All the above problems boil down to identity. No matter how stellar an employee’s performance, there’s a big identity gap between the role of employee and role of leader. The telltale signs of a leader who has not made this identity shift include micromanaging, having trouble delegating and feeling threatened by someone else’s brilliance. In short they have not made the necessary identity shift.  

Here’s why: When an employee suddenly becomes a leader, he or she still identifies with being an employee. Often new leaders are more attached to doing the job than to getting the job done through others.

What to do: Before someone is promoted to a management, supervisory, or leadership role, start six months to one year out creating a bridge strategy. The bridge strategy can include many facets: shadowing, training on specific functions of management, taking courses or getting certifications. What happens in the process is the thinking shifts from “me” to “we” and from job to organization.

Conclusion: Just because someone is a good performer does not mean he or she will be an effective leader. The leap from employee to leader requires new mindsets, skill development and a shift in identity. Providing the necessary resources to develop wise leaders sets the stage for future growth.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and “7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice” (Greenbranch 2018).  Download “The Bottom Line: How Executive Conversations Drive Results.” Connect with Chism via LinkedInFacebook and Twitter and at

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