A reader writes:
My manager recently announced that she had been promoted to become a director, and that her position (our department manager) was vacant and that senior management would really like to see someone from our team fill that position. I was excited at the opportunity, and of course applied (as did most people in my department). Well, despite being the newest and youngest person, I got the job (yay!) but now everyone hates me. Everyone offered me forced congratulations, but these congratulations were often accompanied by things like “Congrats! I’m so happy for you. I guess experience wasn’t much of a factor since I’ve been here five years longer.” Or “Congratulations! You’re the first boss I’ve had that’s younger than me.” I should mention that opportunites like this are becoming rarer and rarer as our industry is outsourcing more and more.
I know the reason I got the job is because I have a strong background in media and technology, and our company is currently undergoing changes to have our media and technology products at the forefront of our product offerings. I’ve worked on some very complicated projects and senior management felt that the type of work I’m doing is the type of work they want to see, so they thought I should lead the team through these changes. I have been with the industry for five years, so it’s not like I’m coming in without any experience. Some of my new reports have been in the industry 15+ years but are very accustomed and tied to the old way of doing things. In other words, they hate change.
It’s very frustrating to lead a team that doesn’t have a lot of faith in me. I’m great at my job, but management is new to me. I have asked my old boss for some advice, but I don’t want to make her think I can’t handle this. My strategy is to continue to excel in my work, hoping to lead by example. What I can’t get rid of are snide comments and “helpful” advice. For example, I handed out a batch of project assignments and everyone made comments like “Wow, you gave this one to John. Anyone can see that Bob should be doing this.” I told them I’ve been assigning projects based on the skills people have, as well as the skills people need to develop. The fact is, I am their direct boss and speaking to me in this way is so inappropriate. However, I’m trying to be sensitive that they are all upset they were passed over for this promotion.
I’ve arranged group outings, training days, lunches, and no one is warming up. I think what it comes down to is they all think that they each deserved the job, and they are waiting for me to fail. What would you do?
You’re being too soft.
When you have a team actively trying to undermine you, group outings and lunches and trying to be sensitive to their pain isn’t the way to go. Instead, you need to tackle this head on: Be direct and assertive about your expectations and when people are crossing the line — or the problems will likely deepen and become more intractable. When people behave inappropriately and you respond by trying to cajole, convince, or charm them into changing their behavior, you signal that they can get away with more of it. You are the manager, and you’re going to need to manage — and right now, they’re apparently counting on you not to.
That means that you need to be very clear with people when their behavior doesn’t meet your standards, and you need to be willing to set and enforce consequences if it doesn’t change. In practice, that means that when someone makes a snide comment about a decision you made, you meet with them privately immediately afterwards and make it clear it’s not acceptable. For instance, in the example you gave, calmly say, “I’d be glad to explain why I assigned that to John, but I’m getting the sense that you’re skeptical of my decisions in general. What’s going on?” Listen with an open mind and then respond that you’ll take it into account but that you’re going to be making lots of decisions, and that you expect that they won’t push back on each one. Say that if they have a big-picture concern, you encourage them to take it up with you, but that in general you expect them to focus on their work and handle things professionally (and privately) if there’s an issue to discuss.
Then, if it happens again, you address it immediately again: “Jane, we’ve talked about this before and it’s continuing to happen. I value your work, but I need someone in your role who will be a positive presence on the team, raise concerns in a professional manner, and not cause tension. I’d like you to think about whether that’s something you’re willing to do in this new context. I hope that you will, although if you decide this isn’t for you, I’ll support you in that decision. But I want to make it very clear that what you’ve been doing can’t continue.” And then you need to be willing to follow through on that.
In other words, warn once, warn a second time with consequences if it continues, and then follow through on those consequences if needed.
You also need to talk to your own manager about what’s going on and your plan for handling it so that she’s in the loop and isn’t blindsided if you end up needing to replace some of these people. Explain to her that you’re encountering resistance from people who seem resentful that they didn’t get the job themselves, and that you intend to address the behavior directly and be clear about what behavior isn’t appropriate, and that you want to give her a heads-up that you might need to make changes on the team if the problems continue after warnings.
However, in order to do all this effectively, you have to be managing well in other areas too. And since you’re a first-time manager, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if you’re not quite there yet. So make sure that you’re really educating yourself on how to manage well — how to set goals and hold people accountable to them, how to delegate effectively, how to give feedback, how to establish a culture that’s both positive and rigorous about results, how to ensure people feel heard but also understand that you’re the final decision-maker, and so forth. That stuff is essential, both as a backdrop to taking on the attitude issues on your team and in terms of managing in general. And certainly for having your boss’s support.
Here are a whole bunch of posts that might help:
what should a new manager ask to get to know employees better? (this might be helpful to do as a positive measure at the same time that you’re laying down the law)