A client recently came to me with a suspicion. Even after a workshop that ironed out most of the kinks in the organization she had just taken over as executive director, one of her employees, she thought, was still not-so-subtly resisting the transition.
Most people can probably relate to that. Getting and becoming a new manager is inherently fraught with uncertainty, as well as vulnerability. Many of us, if we haven’t lost our jobs in the pandemic, have had to navigate newly reconfigured teams, often led by new managers. People have had to adjust to new leadership and step into new leadership positions themselves—and perhaps in most cases over Zoom.
Employees must face the uncertainty of how their performances will stack up relative to the new priorities.
It can ease the transition of a new manager onto a team to think about how the transition shares important features with joining an existing family as a new caregiver (e.g., as a new stepparent). Managing the transition may require active and direct interpersonal intervention. It depends on how different your vision and approach are to your predecessor’s, and what your employees’ relationships were with those old ways. All management involves guiding and motivating employees’ activity to come in line with, and support, an organization’s goals. The management of your own new employees, through the transition of your becoming their boss, however, occurs in a context of fundamental uncertainty, in addition to having a meta quality that may be difficult to wrap one’s head around.
Most people’s professional world actually functions much like the world of a child, where a parent (or other primary caregiver) mediates the consequences of almost any action. In the workplace, your experience is largely filtered through your boss. Even if others—someone higher up in the hierarchy, for example—have an equally important effect on your career, what others know about your performance, and how they interpret that information, is at least colored by the account your manager presents. This makes management transitions a time of particular vulnerability. Our plans, hopes, dreams, and even day-to-day expectations are in fact pinned not to our jobs, themselves, but to those who oversee us doing them.
Those moving into new management positions must understand that their reports are in a situation of inherent threat and uncertainty. Pre-transition, they were in a situation in which they knew the consequences—both professional and interpersonal—of their actions.
At the beginning of a new manager’s tenure, employees have no data to make them feel they can trust even the most reasonable expectations. Not only are new managers entirely different people, but they are also likely to care about different goals and metrics. Employees must face the uncertainty of how their performances will stack up relative to the new priorities.
This kind of vulnerability—lacking information about how our behavior will affect us—is psychologically different from vulnerability to the consequences of mistakes, or even laziness. We can never have perfect control over our actions, but we do usually understand the framework of consequences we are operating in.
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Taking this reality seriously does not require new managers to be “soft” on their new team. However, they should make it a point to provide epistemic clarity. They should also be aware that certain behaviors they see in their employees may be occurring (unconsciously) in response to the threats posed by their own arrival.
It is also, of course, always possible that an employee’s skills, MO, and vision were more compatible with their previous manager’s. Their replacement by a new manager might constitute a real setback. Even if they are able to adapt and succeed behaviorally, the job or the workplace may no longer offer a fit that makes them happy. Needing to change jobs unexpectedly is a valid disappointment that anyone might be expected to fight against.
When we encounter tension or resistance, potential explanations of others’ behavior often occur to us. Explanations might spring to mind like “people just want to do things their own way,” “they’re loyal to their old boss,” “they don’t respect me as a leader,” etc. These interpretations, in turn, affect how we respond. But being guided by these explanations would be a mistake.
First of all, this kind of overmentalization, or attempted mind-reading, leads us to act on unreliable information. More importantly, it undercuts the possibility of having a collaborative exchange that could serve as the basis for the kind of buy-in a new manager is looking for. Even a caring or generous response would undermine the employee’s autonomy and thus the possibility of their buy-in, because it would be a response to one’s own assumptions about that employee.
Managers can, instead, be both realistic and exploratory about the situation. If clear briefs—including explanations of the purpose of the work being requested—are still being met with resistance or non-alignment, it is time to have a frank conversation. A manager can use this conversation to acknowledge their own ignorance about their employee’s mindset, concerns, and perspective. Managers can also demonstrate curiosity and acquire information that may be genuinely useful and inform their own goals and strategies for the organization.
Simultaneously, a frank conversation can disclose the manager’s current experience of tension—regardless of whether the employee (consciously) shares that experience. By approaching this conversation as an opportunity to share information, a manager can exert an appropriate degree of control while respecting and leaving room for the agency of their employee.
People are entitled to their agency, but employees are not entitled to jobs for which they are not a good fit. And that goes regardless of whether they were a good fit with a previous incarnation of the job. New managers are hired for their vision, and to execute on their goals. They have not only a prerogative but a responsibility to pursue them. And while there may be an infinite number of ways to accomplish a goal, they must select one that they know will allow them to deliver, because they are ultimately responsible for failures to do so. It is especially important for women and members of other non-dominant social groups to remember that it is valid for them to respect the needs imposed by taking their accountability and priorities seriously.
Keeping all of this in mind, a frank conversation allows a new manager to respect the demands of their own accountability without negating their employee’s autonomy. It offers the employee the opportunity to be heard and to articulate what they are hoping to contribute. To know that their efforts are being interpreted as attempts to contribute. The supervisor has the opportunity to ensure that the employee has a clear understanding of what is being asked of them, and of where they are not aligned. Ideally, that will provide a start to future collaboration. At worst, it will enable both parties to share an understanding of why the employee may no longer be a good fit for the position.
And the importance of that shared understanding shouldn’t be underappreciated. Even if it can only be achieved as part of an employee’s departure, it will at least make that departure more amicable than it might otherwise be. Hopefully that allows both parties to walk away with greater clarity about what they should look for next.
Melanie Langer is a researcher and consultant who specializes in how individuals’ strategies for managing threat and opportunity influence their attitudes, behaviors, identities, and relationships.