The problem of new managers (and baboons)

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When someone becomes a new manager — i.e. first promoted into a role where they have supervisory capacity over others — what are some of the biggest problems they face?

Two jump out right away. (1) is that management is not intuitive to most people, meaning the skills that got you there (execution) are not the same skills you need when there (often softer skills). (2) is that we do a horrible job training most new managers, ranging from research about manager development (rooted in 1911) to the gap between first time as a new manager (30) and first average training (42), meaning a newborn would be in fifth-sixth grade before their dad was given any training on their job. That seems effective.

We got another elephant — er, other animal — in the room that we should discuss.

The new manager hierarchy problem

New article on Harvard Business Review about the roles and context of a new manager. Pay attention here:

Stanford academic Bob Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss and the forthcoming The Asshole Survival Guide, says the challenges that new managers face have a lot to do with where they place their own attention: “Your attention will naturally shift up — be directed up the hierarchy.’’ This even happens in nature: The average baboon looks up at the alpha male every 30 seconds or so to see what he is doing. We do the same thing when we’ve been promoted, constantly looking up to make sure our boss is seeing and approving of us, which means we’re paying less attention to the people we’re now leading.

I just fell down because of the force of that truth.

How this becomes a problem

There are a lot of ways. Let me give you a few.

“The key stakeholders and decision-makers” problem: We’ve turned many offices into places where only the opinion of 10–14 people even remotely matters. The rest of us are just running in circles waiting for one of them to weigh in. This is a real issue, and definitely cuts into reduced employee engagement scores globally.

The new manager now looks like a brown-noser to his team: He only cares about the opinion of him from above, not from below.

“Sense of urgency:” The guy above the new manager is probably even more “super busy/slammed,” so he will lack priority and context around the work too. (All meetings/calls, no level setting.) That means he’ll bellow something is urgent a few times per week. This is called “sense of urgency” management. It’s a trick. But if the new manager constantly says “how high!” when his boss says “jump,” well, good luck to the direct reports of the new manager. They’re screwed.

Technology: Many a new manager, overwhelmed and trying to please their own boss, will hide behind a technology platform — from email to some HR software — and not really talk to their direct reports. (Ironically, their boss will try to do this with them too.) This doesn’t solve people issues, but for some reason we’ve come to believe it does because tech is our God and helps us scale.

A note on work and baboons

Work has been equated to “chimp rape” and I’ve often thought that Counting Crows lyric — “All monkeys do what they see” — is a great description of white-collar work. So, I mean…

Can we make a new manager more effective?

Yep. My man Art Petty has some good stuff on this, as do others. By the way, The Muse dominates this whole category on Google Search, including common new manager mistakes — and they have some decent advice too.

Some stuff I’d add:

  • Make sure execs care about what front-line managers are doing well/badly
  • Train around context and situation, not cookie-cutter/out-of-the-box
  • Incentives for managers who have more face-to-face discussions with reports
  • Tie managerial bonuses to how their direct reports evaluate them (not just their boss)
  • Have resources/learning libraries that are almost bullet point in nature, so super-busy new managers can peruse quickly
  • Create managerial peer programs so that this isn’t just “a HR thing”
  • Did I mention someone has to care about whether a new manager is effective?

I somehow got through this entire thing and didn’t mention micromanaging, which might be the №1 problem of most new bosses. So there you go if you want some research/context on that.

What else would you add on how to make a new manager more effective?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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