I’ve led dozens of seminars, courses and leadership meetings with new managers and unsurprisingly, there is a seam of anxiety that runs through these sessions that manifests itself in different behaviors: nervousness, faint hostility and even some shaky optimism. Often, the participants are mostly concerned about the compliance of management; i.e. how do I make sure I don’t get sued? Others are nervous because of performance reviews – the #1 question I get is “how do I give difficult feedback to an employee?”. So much of new manager training emphasizes these aspects – what you can’t do as a manager, how to avoid risk and how to mitigate it if appears. There may be some positive aspect of management that is covered; for example how to recognize and reward strong talent, but more often than not, these sessions are about anticipating “difficult” employees.
It’s a pity. Management is a weird construct, no doubt. We voluntarily join institutions that appoint some people to tell other people what to do with an authority that only exists in that institution. How strange is that? And institutions don’t really do a good job selecting and preparing people to be great managers. Is it a wonder that people feel awkward and uncomfortable moving into management?
Personally, I like meeting with managers after a few months in the role. When they’re asked what surprised them the most, the most common answer is the amount of time being a manager takes. But that’s not the most shocking thing.
While the concept of management is a little odd, the idea that some people have authority over others is not. You’re the client, the priest, the doctor, the teacher, the pilot and so on. You either have expertise or money or a talent that others defer to. In a corporate environment, somebody is figuring out the policy, the procedures, the goals, the rules of engagement and others are expected to know and follow the rules. And those are just the documented rules. More importantly, we look at certain people to tell us what and how to work and we observe their moves with more intensity, looking for meaning in what’s not said as much as what is.
So after reading this far, and being teased with an answer that’s yet to arrive, here it is. The most shocking thing you’re not prepared for when you become a manager is….you’re now that person. The one people expect answers from. The one that makes and interprets rules and is expected to hold everyone to those rules consistently and fairly. The one everyone is looking at.
It is a transformative realization.
Bad managers aren’t even aware of this. Good managers are aware and try their best to accommodate it and great managers leverage it for the benefit of the team.
When you do begin to realize it, it can be terrifying because you know you don’t have any more answers than you did before this job but now it is your role to demonstrate good judgment and lead others to execute against a plan.
What’s an even more shocking change is that people are looking at you. Your demeanor, eye contact, facial expressions and body language are sending out far more meaning than you intend. When you stop by someone’s desk for a morning chat and walk by another’s, people are assigning meaning and value to those few moments.
I’ll tell you – it’s a strange feeling. The things you do unconsciously are suddenly in the spotlight and it can be exhausting to think consciously about your actions. You might think, “Oh people should just be adults about it” or “I don’t care, I’m just going to be me” – and that’s fine, as long as you remember that the next time you’re on the receiving end.
For new managers, it’s a lot to take in so all you have to do to begin is observe yourself. Who do you look at in meetings? What’s your body language in 1:1s? What’s your tone when you disagree with someone?
It can be draining to be “on” all the time so you have to find your energy when you can. But if you can harness that energy, create capacity for yourself and leverage non-verbal cues to engage your team you will be astounded at how people are drawn to you. And you’ll actually be taking the first step in becoming a true leader, not one in name only.