Sidestep the Landmines
As a workplace advice columnist, management consultant and former chief of staff for a successful nonprofit, I’ve witnessed a lot of managers who struggled to transition from being part of a team to effectively managing one. In fact, one of the biggest parts of my consulting work is coaching new managers who want to get it right — but are walking dangerously close to some common landmines.
Whether you’re struggling to establish your authority, wanting to be liked or feeling uncomfortable about giving negative feedback, here are eight strategies every manager should know.
Develop Management Skills on the Job
People often become managers because they were great at something else — communications or engineering or whatever they were doing before the management role came along. But as you advance and take on management roles, you discover that the skills needed to get things done as a manager (like setting goals and holding people accountable to them, giving feedback, building a great team and so forth) are entirely different than the ones you’ve already mastered in previous positions. And since most managers don’t get much, if any, training in how to manage well, you’re left to figure it out on the job.
This can result in some tough first few years for most managers (and often their teams) and a lot of learning through mistakes. You can’t avoid that entirely, but you can cut down on it by deliberately working to develop your management skills: Be proactive in seeking out management workshops and classes, books, blogs and — often most valuable — more experienced mentors.
Establish Your Authority, Even If It’s Uncomfortable
If you’re like most new managers, you may feel awkward at first about doing “manager” things like delegating work and giving feedback. I sure did. In my first year of managing, I was convinced that people would bristle if I was particularly directive on an assignment (“I need you to do X rather than Y.”) or made course corrections to a project, let alone if I gave tough feedback. That made doing those tasks an angst-filled experience for me (and probably for my staff as well) — until I figured out that employees expect their manager to do those things. The only person feeling weird about it is the new manager.
So if it doesn’t feel natural to speak and act with the authority of your position in the beginning, fake it until it does. No one else will notice.
Watch What You Say and Do
As a manager, your throwaway remarks are suddenly going to be studied and analyzed. If you express enthusiasm for one person’s idea, people will assume that’s the idea they should back. And if you’re in a grumpy mood, some employees may spend days wondering what they did wrong and if their jobs are in danger.
You can’t entirely avoid sending inadvertent messages like this, but what you can do is to be aware that you’re on a stage now, and be deliberate about finding ways to counteract that effect. For instance, in a meeting you might choose not to weigh in on an idea until everyone else has had their say to avoid biasing people in favor of your opinion.
Be Clear About What Your Team Shouldn’t Do, Too
Managers often get pulled in too many directions instead of figuring out the most important tasks for their teams to achieve and focusing on those. Some activities will have more of an impact than others, and those are the ones you should focus on — which means saying no to the others.
Ineffective managers frequently say “yes” to anything that sounds like a good idea. Effective managers are rigorous about asking, “Is this the best possible way we could be spending our time and resources?”
Don’t Try to Be Friends With the People You Manage
Create professional boundaries between yourself and the people you manage, so that you can objectively assess their work, give direct feedback and even potentially fire someone one day. That means you can’t have the same types of office friendships you probably had before you became a manager. You might really click with someone on your staff, and you can have a warm and supportive relationship … but you can’t be friends.
Over and over, I’ve seen new managers think that this message doesn’t apply to them — that they’ll be the exception who can be friends with their staff members without running into problems. But one of the trickiest parts about this rule is that people who violate it always think it’s working out fine, until the moment that it’s not fine at all — the moment that you need to give tough feedback, delegate undesirable work, lay someone off or whatever else comes up that shatters the friendship illusion.
Face It: Some People Just Won’t Like You
If you’re doing your job, not everyone will like you. You’ll need to tell some people their work isn’t good enough, hold people accountable who might not like that, enforce policies that might irritate the heck out of some people and, yes, fire people. It’s unsettling to know that some people will dislike you simply because you’re doing your job, but it’s unavoidable. Ironically enough, if you're too invested in being liked, over time the opposite will happen: As problems go unresolved and difficult decisions go unmade, staff members will become frustrated and complain, and the best among them will leave.
Don’t Sugarcoat Critical Feedback
Your staff deserves clear and direct feedback, which means you’ll be having some tough conversations. And you can’t hide behind email either; do it face-to-face. Don’t underestimate how hard it will be the first few times (and even thereafter) and how tempting it will be to soften the message. But you can’t, because while you might feel kinder sugarcoating a difficult conversation, it’s not at all kind to let someone miss an important message.
Treat People With Compassion
Even in the hardest moments, like letting someone go, or when you’re frustrated or angry, treat everyone you manage with kindness and dignity. You have the power in this relationship, and that comes with the responsibility of exercising it with reason and compassion. Doing that won’t undermine your authority; in fact, it will generally make you look stronger.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of “How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” and “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results,” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, including hiring and firing.