Nothing in life is always a bed of roses and even seasoned technical managers make basic mistakes that impact their teams’ performance. In my previous articles (If you’re a manager, invest more time in your tech skills and For Managers: How to develop your tech skills) I covered the importance of that set of skills and how managers can develop them to help on their day-to-day work. Let’s now talk about the common pitfalls that I’ve seen experienced managers face mostly because they have (or believe they have) a solid technical background. I have to be honest and confess that I’ve caught myself making these mistakes on several occasions.
#1: Fire-fighter mode is ON
Quite often team members reach out to managers to discuss a problem, but they are not actually looking for a solution. All they want is to vent, bring awareness or have a fresh pair of eyes looking into it.
However, it’s tempting for managers – whose common traits include assertiveness and decisiveness – to think they are expected to provide solutions. If the problem is related to an area where the manager has worked in the past, it’s almost certain that a ‘suggestion’ will come up, either due to an unconscious need to show that he/she is still sharp or due to a genuine willingness to help.
The problem with this fire-fighter approach of jumping in and trying to fix the problem is that it can easily kill team ownership and empowerment if not applied in small doses. Coaching techniques  could be helpful to suppress that impulse to always address the problem.
#2: Directions instead of suggestions
As a manager, you need to recognize that no matter how flat, small or open your organization/team is, you’ll have power over your subordinates and they will not see you as a peer. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a fruitful and open relationship with your team members.
Once you provide technical suggestions – even in areas where you are the most experienced in the room – the team will receive them differently if they were hearing them from a peer. Some teams may be more vocal and push back if they disagree with the proposals. Other ones may feel compelled to accept them since they came from their manager.
In those cases, the best way to avoid problems is to assess and build a safe environment where people can share their thoughts. Do a quick test: measure the team participation in Sprint Retros with and without their managers in the room. If the team doesn’t feel comfortable to share certain problems because the manager is present, that’s usually a sign that there is some work to be done to make that environment more psychologically safe.
#3: Tech skills to be able to speak up
Managers can leverage their technical skills to better understand what the team is trying to communicate. Active listening  is one of the major virtues of an outstanding leader and should be practiced during technical sessions too. However, one may think that the main benefit of having those skills is to able to speak up and contribute to solutions.
As a manager, you should try to hold your natural instinct of speaking more than listening and allow the team to brainstorm before you interject them with your thoughts.
#4: Misinterpreting the level of engagement
If a manager is lucky, he/she will spend 4hs/week developing their technical capabilities. During the same period, a developer will spend at least 10x more time (40+ hours). How can a manager keep up with the technical changes in a project? He/she just can’t and, for everybody’s sanity, that’s intentional and expected.
Therefore, a manager needs to be mindful that his/her solution knowledge is at the same time outdated and at a high level. That should dictate how much technical engagement he/she could have and how his/her comments should be positioned to the team.
#5: Tech skills take precedence to interpersonal skills
Nobody will hire a manager because he/she is an outstanding Java developer or an experienced Senior Architect. One is promoted to a management position due to his/her abilities (or potential) to lead other people to get work done through them.
Technical skills can be your competitive advantage, but you should never lose sight that your job requires developing mainly other areas such as leadership, coaching, people development, and project management. Avoid spending too much time developing technical expertise, even if that seems to be more enjoyable.