Picture this; you’re a fresh-faced leader just getting to grips with your new role. Your main bugbear? One team member who is underperforming. It doesn’t matter how many SMART goals you set and performance conversations you have, over the next few months this individual fails to pull their socks up. To an experienced leader, this is a manageable problem with an obvious solution but, to a new manager, it’s terrifying.
You have no more tricks left up your sleeve, and it feels like the only option available is to terminate. Now, it might be that termination is a valid approach – even rigorous coaching has its limits – but having the confidence to know you’ve done everything you can and are justified in pulling the trigger is far beyond the experience of most new leaders. So, how do we as experienced managers ensure that those still finding their feet have the tools they need to succeed?
The head in the sand solution
We all have a tendency to opt for the easy option, and that means avoiding confrontation or tricky situations. With an underperformer and an inexperienced manager, this approach typically leads to the invention of a ‘special project’, something to keep the lacklustre colleague occupied and limit the damage they can do to team productivity. Of course, there is one other option; do nothing – and silently resent the underperformer’s presence while you do.
Neither option is conducive to the long-term success of the team, the organisation, or a developing manager. In fact, feeling powerless to improve the situation can turn new leaders into cynical, passive-aggressive, or sarcastic managers. It should come as no surprise that all these traits have a significant impact on employee morale, engagement, and productivity¹.
The unprofessional approach
Sarcasm, cynicism, and passive-aggression are all avoidance behaviours, and they’re the go-to reaction for many of us when we become overwhelmed. Needless to say, they have no place in a manager-employee relationship. Not only are they detrimental to organisational productivity¹, but they’ve also been shown to negatively impact employee engagement and job satisfaction, and increase burnout². Hardly surprising – it’s harder to trust sarcastic, cynical, or passive-aggressive leaders, many of whom will avoid giving direct critiques of work and actionable feedback³. Put simply; employees don’t know where they stand with these types of managers.
Of course, instilling the need to avoid such behaviours in a new manager is only part of the problem. Your developing leader might be able to rise above the annoyance caused by an underachiever, but what about the rest of their team? Passive-aggression is just as detrimental in a team as a leader. At an organisational level, it can slow decision making and stall execution, at a team level it hinders communication and productivity. For individuals, it causes unnecessary stress⁴.
New managers are responsible for the entire team, and they need to have the confidence to address issues like this and the skill to foster productive conflict before their first day on the job.
From theory to practice
“There is nothing so easy to learn as experience and nothing so hard to apply.”
-Josh Billings, American Humorist
Learning management theory is easy, it’s translating all those strategies into the real world that can be tricky. Those of you who caught my article on promoting high performers will know that I’m firmly of the opinion learning to become a manager takes time and practice. I’m all for an apprenticeship approach.
Letting individuals grow into management roles and develop their skills by managing freelancers or overseeing important projects means we create fewer frustrated or overwhelmed new leaders. Without an approach like the one I’m advocating, potentially good managers can be undone by the challenges of practicing leadership.
Making a manager
An apprenticeship approach requires a serious commitment to coaching and training. Budding managers need to understand just how important their role is to the long-term success of the organisation. It’s up to them to align, motivate, and inspire their teams, and they’ll need a whole new set of skills to achieve that:
- Communication. Gone are the days of off hand comments to colleagues. New managers need to be mindful of what they are saying and the impact their opinions can have on a team. Good communication is critical to many productivity initiatives, especially delivering employee feedback, and new leaders need to learn how to win the trust and respect of their team.
- Delegation. One of the biggest challenges for a new manager is recognising the difference between delivering results at a team level as opposed to as an individual. New leaders no longer have complete control over an outcome, and if they don’t have the support and experience to delegate, the urge to micro-manage may become too hard to fight.
- Critical Thinking: Not a widely used skill in junior roles, many new managers need time to learn how to think strategically and identify the most productive workflows for their team. All the theory in the world won’t help them with this one; it’s a skill only experience can teach.
To sum up…
Managers – the good ones at least – are not made overnight. As senior leaders, it’s up to us to mentor promising individuals. This means creating opportunities for potential managers to lead long before they take on an official management role, and continuing to mentor and support new managers to ensure they have the support they need to excel as leaders.
What was your experience of junior management? Did you ever wish you’d had more training and support?
¹Kessler et al., 2013. Leadership, interpersonal conflict and counterproductive work behaviour: An examination of stressor-strain process. [Abstract]. International Association for Conflict Management. 6 (3). pp. 180-190.
²Leary et al., 2013. The relationship among dysfunctional leadership dispositions, employee engagement, job satisfaction and burnout. [Abstract]. The Psychologist-Manager Journal. 16 (2). pp 112-130.
³Jones, 2012. 5 signs of passive-aggressive management: why it kills employee motivation and how to deal. Brazen.
⁴Davey, 2016. Reduce passive aggressive behaviour on your team. Harvard Business Review.