new managers and authority

Becoming comfortable with exercising authority is one of the hardest adjustments for most new managers, but it’s also one of the most crucial if you want to be effective. Here’s a letter from a reader who is struggling with exactly this.

She writes:

I was hired to manage a team of fairly experienced sales people. I originally was a manager of a different line and left for a better opportunity, and returned for a promotion as sales coordinator. I had known the team already and had a respect built with them and they constantly commented on my work ethic such as “I don’t know how you do it,” “you’re staying late again?” “don’t let this job kill you, they are taking advantage of you” … these are a few examples.

Now that I am the sales coordinator of this line and their boss, it is tough to say the least. They are constantly whining, complaining and irritated about the department. From stock issues, to pay rate, to fairness of the department managers, to bonus amounts, it never ends. I am exhausted of saying, “think positive” and “stay focused.” I have tried firm talks, patient listening, enthusiastic support and encouragement, and partnering with other managers for support. I am slowly losing patience.

As a boss, I have given them every available resource to ensure success. I have rewarded success, put positive spin on failure, built them up to superiors. I guess my point is, I am trying to keep the emotion out of it and try to focus on the facts, but when I get home, I could cry, because I am totally beat up and exhausted on finding ways to improve sales and stop the negative whining, complaining, bitterness, and just keep going forward with the business. What approach am I missing? Maybe I am just not qualified?

I think you are missing one key fact here: You are their boss. Ultimately you set the standards for what flies and what doesn’t, and you are able to set and enforce consequences. You do not have to rely on cajoling and hoping that you can persuade them. Yes, it’s good to hear out your employees and be supportive when they are struggling. However, from what you write, it’s long past that point and your willingness to indulge them in their mindset is likely enabling the very behavior you want to stop.

You need to make it clear to them that these are the conditions, and whining and complaining isn’t acceptable. Let them know that you will hear them out once about a concern. (And do hear them with an open mind and act on their concerns if you determine they’re valid.) But you will not allow them to waste company time and poison the environment by complaining about those same items over and over; these items should be one-time conversations, not ongoing ones. They are expected to discuss their concerns like professional adults, accept the answer, and move on with their work.

If they continue to indulge in whining and complaining after you establish these boundaries, you must address it head-on. I would tell the whiny employees (individually, not as a group) that the things they’re frustrated by aren’t going to change, that you can’t be constantly battling over them, and that they need to decide whether they can be happy in their jobs knowing that. But continuing to complain is not an option.

It sounds like you want to be nice to your team, which is great — but nice can’t be allowed to trump your fundamental duties as a manager, which include holding the bar high and expecting people to adhere to it, warning them when they’re falling short, and taking action when warnings don’t work.

I suspect this might come down to how comfortable you are with your authority. Do you have the authority to transition out people who aren’t working well (or to go to your boss and make the case for termination)? Is it authority you’re willing to use? Assuming so, act with the confidence of your position — lay out the expectations and hold people to them. (This doesn’t mean firing someone the first time they complain — but it does mean being firm about what is and isn’t professional behavior, pointing it out when lines are crossed, and addressing it if there’s no improvement … which might mean deciding that being able to focus on the work at hand without dragging down other members of the team is a fundamental requirement of the job and that people who refuse to meet that standard should be let go.)

However, especially because this will be a switch in how you’ve approached this up until now, the key is going to be getting the tone of it right — you don’t want to be a tyrant, but you do want to be firm. To get that tone right, you really need to believe in your own authority to take action, so that you don’t feel insecure about your position. Otherwise, you may come across as overly aggressive or defensive. The tone you’re striving for is matter-of-fact — not angry, not pleading, just matter-of-fact about the idea that their behavior has become disruptive to the organization and needs to be resolved once and for all. The underlying subtext should be that while you genuinely hope they will decide to meet the standards and stay, you are willing to let them go if they don’t improve.

Keep in mind that it’s now your job to address problems and hold employees accountable; you’re not being mean by doing so!

{ 5 comments… read them below }

  1. The Happy Employee*

    I’m pretty sure that at the end of the day most employees prefer a tough and strong manager as described by AAM.

    At first they will probably say “you’re so hard on us, you’re mean”, but with time they will appreciate the clear directions and fairness.

    And they will also realize that it’s much more satisfying to work in a productive and successful environment rather than whine all day long.

  2. Wally Bock*

    AAM gave you a great answer, let me take a slightly different perspective. Here’s the advice we give new managers in my programs and that’s incorporated into my Working Supervisor’s Support Kit.

    Your job is to accomplish the mission and care for your people. If you’re not doing both, you’re not doing what they pay you for. You then have two choices. Either learn to do what you’re supposed to do or find another position. If you decide to stay and work on your end, consider the following.

    Your job is to use what you say and do to influence the behavior and performance of the people who work for you. To help you do that, the company has given you the ability to deliver both positive and negative consequences.

    The process of being a boss starts with setting expectations for behavior and performance. Then you follow up to see how things are going. That’s when you coach, counsel, encourage and correct. You may also deliver consequences.

    Then you start over. In most work groups, most of the time, most of the people will do the right thing. The small number who do not will suck up your time, attention, and energy. That is how it is.

    However, if you believe everyone in the group is a problem, then the problem is probably whatever you’re doing.

  3. Anonymous*

    The best salespeople I’ve worked with are so obsessed with their monthly and quarterly targets, they don’t have time to worry about who gave them a dirty look, who got promoted, who got to expense a first class ticket etc.

    I don’t know that I’d even have the patience to listen to a gripe session.

  4. Dave Barnhart*

    The key question is: "Are they performing?" Are they meeting their quotas? Work with YOUR boss to determine a new set of sales goals that are a stretch but are achievable. Then put them in place and measure performance against them.

    If you have no formal sales management training, I might suggest that you will find it helpful.

  5. Anonymous*

    This is an old post, but…do your employees have clear sales targets? This is VITAL for all areas of business and especially for sales. You need to determine specific, achievable targets for each and every one of them, and then hold them accountable for achieving these targets. Read up on SMART goals if you’re not familiar with the concept. They need to know clearly what you’re expecting from them. It can’t be a vague concept of increasing sales.

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