are you cut out to be a manager?

If you’re thinking about taking on a management role, before you make the move, make sure you’ve thought through what it really takes to be a manager. Parts of the job are painfully hard, and it’s not for everyone. For instance…

Can you deliver difficult criticism and have tough conversations? As a manager, you’ll need to have some very difficult conversations—from telling an employee she has body odor to telling an employee who’s genuinely trying hard that she’s in danger of being fired if her performance doesn’t improve. If you shy away from these sorts of discussions, management will be torture for you—as well as for your employees, who will be counting on you to be direct.

Can you make hard decisions about goals and priorities, and say no to things that don’t advance those goals? It’s easy to Monday-morning-quarterback your manager’s decisions and say that the team should have taken on Project A and declined Project B … but when you’re the manager, those decisions are a lot harder. Can you lay out a vision for your team, set goals and timelines around it, hold people accountable to meeting those goals, and be disciplined about saying no to activities that won’t drive you forward toward your objectives? Many managers struggle with pieces of this—especially saying no to projects that sound worthy but belong lower on the priority list.

Do you feel comfortable exercising authority, including with people older and more experienced than you? One of the hardest things for new managers—as well as some more experienced managers—is getting over their awkwardness about being the person calling the shots. It’s particularly challenging when you’re managing former peers or people with far more experience than you. Many managers respond by becoming overly hesitant or overly aggressive. Can you get the balance right?

Do you know how to get things done without resorting to fear tactics? Weak managers often resort to getting things done through rigid control, a climate of fear and anxiety, and behaviors like yelling and making unreasonable demands. Will you be able to calmly lay out expectations in an open and straightforward manner, hold people to them in a fair and positive manner, and back up your words with action without become negative or frustrated?

Can you represent the company even when you privately disagree with a decision from above you? As a member of your company’s management team, part of your job is to represent that team to your staff, even when you don’t agree with its decisions. That might mean presenting and enforcing a new policy on telecommuting that you privately don’t support, or even laying off a staff member who you value when your division needs to make cuts. You can and should advocate for your point of view in private conversations with those above you, but you can’t undermine the company’s management by complaining about it to your team members.

Are you comfortable working with people smarter than you, or does it make you defensive? Part of your job as a manager is to build a strong team, and that means that ideally you’ll be seeking out and hiring people who are smarter than you. Bad managers do the opposite of this—hiring people whose skills won’t threaten them, and who they can feel superior to, which of course results in a weak team. Is your ego strong enough to oversee people whose skills might outshine yours?

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie*

    Can you represent the company even when you privately disagree with a decision from above you?

    This is truly one of the hardest and least talked about issues with being management. It can suck – and you can’t just pull up a can of Diet Coke and join the bitch session with everyone else. Your venting needs to be saved for home where the listeners don’t care, but it won’t damage your credibility.

    Are you comfortable working with people smarter than you, or does it make you defensive?

    THIS! If you can’t deal with this then turn down the promotion and FFS stay out of the way of people who aren’t threatened. I recall a new employee who turned in some documentation that was better than what I would have done. I said a prayer of thanks in my head and barely refrained from turning an actual cartwheel. I’m good enough at what I do (and arrogant enough to embrace my self-esteem) to be thrilled when I see ability and talents in others which will elevate everyone’s game.

  2. Mike C.*

    Where I am there are lots of opportunities for folks to become temporary managers, anywhere from a few days to several months. This is done to cover short term absences and give folks a taste and some experience in the role.

    Would your advice change for folks who know they will only be in the role for a limited amount of time?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The prospect makes me pretty nervous, because it usually takes a while to learn to manage well — at least a year before you even start to feel comfortable, generally, and longer than that to learn to handle all the stuff that comes up that you have to deal with.

      If these temporary roles are more like project managers, though (as opposed to the harder people management part), then I’d be less worried. (And maybe that’s the case if it can be as short as a few days — that’s not really enough time to have to deal with performance problems, feedback, etc.)

      How does it seem to work out for the temporary managers and the people working under them?

      1. Mike C.*

        Actually, it seems to work fairly well. There area bunch of managers with their own work crews who are there to answer questions/lend support, and the second and third level managers are also there to keep an eye on things. This is great for the extended terms, but for things like “Manager X is in training for the next two days”, it’s usually not a big deal.

        I haven’t done it myself, but the folks who are generally picked to be temporary managers are already crew leads who know a great deal about group and are just handed a few more responsibilities and have to dress up a bit more. They also receive a temporary bump in pay which is only fair, right?

        The only downside is that for groups that are more dynamic (say a group of process improvement/metrics analysis/project managers) you need a manager that can deal with the needs of upper management and balance work among the different folks based on work load and individual experience. Otherwise you end up with a number of second or third level managers who keep overloading the same person while others sit idle.

  3. Rob Bird*

    Do you feel confortable exercising authority, including with people older and far more experienced than you?

    I remember this happening in my first supervisory role. I was there for 1.5 years when I was promoted to supervisor. Many of the staff had been there for years and it was a sore subject.

    A few of the staff would come over and ask me to do things that they knew the previous supervisor wouldn’t allow, but throught they could push me into doing. I had one of two responses; “How does this tie into the Mission and the Vision for our Company?” and “Let me go ask my Supervisor”.

    Needless to say, they didn’t try it for very long :)

  4. Joey*

    I have one more that some disagree with. I firmly believe a manager has a responsibility to motivate his team. Sure you expect people to have self motivation, but its a managers responsibility to proactively kick that self motivation into high gear.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d say it depends on what you mean by motivation. Helping people see progress toward goals, helping them understand how their work fits into a bigger whole and why it’s important, helping them grow and stretch — yes, absolutely. But pushing them to have a work ethic? No way!

      1. Joey*

        Yes, I’m talking about doing things like showing someone how achieving team and corporate goals is going to further their own personal goals. Or reminding you how working yourself to the bone to finish a big project with a short deadline is going to be tough, but worth it.

        Yeah, if I have to motivate you to just show up you might as well just quit now.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Oh, I totally agree with that! It seems like a lot of the time when I get asked by a manager about how to motivate people on their team, it turns out that the employee in question probably just needs to be replaced — the manager really means, “how can I get this person to do their work?”

          But with what you’re talking about, absolutely.

  5. TheBFG*

    “You can and should advocate for your point of view in private conversations with those above you, but you can’t undermine the company’s management by complaining about it to your team members.”

    This is one of my major peeves as a lower-level employee. Nothing drives me more crazy than when my middle-manager boss gives us an assignment and sighs and says, “I know this is a stupid task, but the director wants us to do it.” Or when she badmouths upper management and how they treat her and expects us to be sympathetic. Or when she complains to us (her underlings) that she’s not getting paid enough.

    Sorry, boss—you make almost twice the salary I do, we are NOT the same and we are NOT in the same situation, so stop acting like it!

    1. Mike C.*

      I actually appreciate the recognition that a project might be a stupid idea but that it originates from higher up. It helps to know who the idiot is.

      More seriously, if I know where a request is coming from, I can better understand their needs and motivations and deliver a better product.

    2. Sharon*

      I have seen this done well on rare occasion, though. My manager was brief but honest and didn’t rant about it. It was a tactful “I don’t agree with this decision but we have to go with it, so…” I respected him a lot more after that.

      But more of the time I’ve seen it done badly, so… yeah, turbulent waters best avoided.

      1. Joey*

        That’s not how you do it. You don’t throw your boss under the bus. You create resentment by saying that. You have to own decisions that you don’t agree with.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Totally agree, and if I found out that a manager under me was doing that, it would destroy the trust between us — and probably affect that person’s tenure with me. You don’t do that.

          If you disagree with a decision, you make your case for doing it differently. If it doesn’t change, you try to at least understand where it’s coming from, so you can relay that to your team. If you can’t even understand where it’s coming from and that happens more than once or twice, it’s a sign that you’ve got major problems in your role or with your company. Just complaining to your team is not an okay option for handling it.

          1. fposte*

            Do you think the dynamics are the same when you’re talking about policies and decisions that come from much higher groups, like governmental decisions? I’m not always, um, respectful about bureaucratic requirements, especially those that are responses to a big cheese’s wrongdoing, but I aim for a sort of resigned pragmatism.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I think it’s a little different. You still want to be cognizant of not totally souring your staff on the environment or making them cynical, but I think that stuff falls into a bit of a different category.

            2. K*

              I gather this happens a lot in federal agencies, where the program people might well be hugely opposed to the agenda pushed by the political appointees du jour. I’ve never worked in one (and honestly, partly for that reason don’t have any particular desire to), but I rather suspect a relatively healthy balance in that kind of environment might involve figuring out how to do your job while maintaining a healthy contempt for the higher-ups rather than pretending allegiance with your subordinates.

              1. fposte*

                That’s kind of my approach. I have serious allegiance to my “silo,” but every time we have to do stuff because the law school cheated or our governor got caught, I’m more comfortable acknowledging the ludicrousness and just getting it done than pretending it’s all really wise and sensible.

            3. Joey*

              You don’t have to agree, but you have to respect the decision. I’ve worked in local gov’t where elected officials sometimes made decisions based on politics or that only sounded good on the surface. While you may disagree you have to respect that their views represent their constituents and won’t always necessarily align with yours. It comes with the job.

              1. Hmmm*

                What if your boss (upper management) is an openly crazy person that everyone recognizes is someone who makes up pointless tasks for people to work on, has no respect for anyone’s time, and treats the staff you manage like children?

                Is it okay to acknowledge that the orders aren’t from you then? Because I feel like I am the only thing preventing my staff from walking out the door (the only thing keeping me here is the fact that I don’t want to quit without another job, but I am looking).

                1. Joey*

                  That’s more of an issue with you and your boss. You need to have a discussion with him about your role as a manager. He really shouldn’t be in the weeds all the time. For you to be an effective manager he needs be higher in the sky and focus on team goals and let you best decide how to accomplish them. And that allows you to protect your team from most of his bs.

          2. Original Dan*

            Hmmm. If the policy is stupid and everyone knows it’s stupid, you would look like an idiot for trying to convince your underlings that it’s the wise choice.

            Sure, you shouldn’t go on a rant about how stupid it is, but it’s just as, if not more, damaging to try to pretend no one can tell it’s a dumb idea.

            I like to come down along the lines of “This may be a little tough to implement, but it’s come down from the management team that we need to speak only when spoken to. I need you all to comply with the policy please.”

            1. Joey*

              No! If you find yourself saying the policy is stupid you’re not challenging your boss enough, raising concerns, or asking questions. If you think the policy is dumb you need to find out why the decision maker thinks its not stupid. You may not agree, but there’s no way you can stand behind a decision if you don’t understand why it was made.

          3. Maggie*

            That’s a great point. By getting the why’s of a decision you can easily relate that to your team. But I think I have only had managers above ME that also badmouthed decisions, thereby not granting me the why’s to tell my team. It also taught me that I could be frank with my team when I didn’t agree with a decision. While it has never backfired (built resentment or kept them from being productive), it doesn’t mean it won’t at some point with another team. Thanks for the insight. Hindsight is interesting.

            (sorry to post on such an old thread!)

      2. TheBFG*

        I definitely agree with you, Sharon. A lot of it is about how it’s delivered…I do want my manager to let me know that she fought for us and that she has her own point of view, but I don’t want her to roll her eyes and and show her disgust while she tosses an undesirable project at us dismissively.

        And Mike, I agree with you, too. Usually just naming who the project came from is enough to let everyone know what’s going on (we all know who the crazies are). But I am less welcoming to the venting that comes after it. It’s also just really demoralizing to start work on a project that you know your direct supervisor cares less than nothing about.

    3. Jamie*

      My problem with the sentiment that it’s a stupid task is that oftentimes the real problem is that the need for the task isn’t communicated effectively enough.

      Whether you give me accurate inventory numbers because, as I’ve explained in meetings, our inventory is tied to our financial statements and we have a legal obligation to accurately assess that and that it ties to unit costs and BOM Cost Build-Ups without which job costing is meaningless and sales has nothing on which to base their pricing…or whether you get them to me to shut me up because you think this is just busy work the office pushes out for sport…

      Well, I’ve given the info and sometimes it’s appreciated and sometimes ignored. I’ve seen crucial tasks assigned by others dismissed as bs busy work because the importance wasn’t explained.

      I’m not saying it never happens, but it’s the rare manager that has nothing better to do than think up useless tasks. Maybe part of the problem is the bigger message of WHY we do X rather than HOW to do X is being missed.

      1. Laura L*

        “Maybe part of the problem is the bigger message of WHY we do X rather than HOW to do X is being missed.”

        Yes! If more people would explain as much of the why as possible, the world would be so much better.

      2. Original Dan*

        Around here it’s not that we think managers are thinking up busy work, it’s that they’re coming up with policies that make it easier for say Finance, or HR, but result in more work for Engineering. Naturally the engineers aren’t happy, and it’s compounded by the lack of the “why” as you mentioned.

  6. The IT Manager*

    Great article, Alison. Usually I only skim the linked articles, but today I read it closely.

    I find that I have a bit of a different perspective because I was an officer in the military so I did get a lot of leadership and management training and was also assigned to leadership/management roles at times throughout my career. I’m certainly not a natural leader or manager and in part because I struggle with some of these (particularly delivering difficult criticism and have tough conversations), but on the other hand I did learn that it was something I needed to better at because it was something a manager needed to do to be good. OTOH the military rank structure made exercising authority over people older and more experienced than me a cinch. The people I supervised pretty much never were up for my job before I was selected so there was no bitterness because of that.

    1. Chinook*

      DH’s experience in the military did show me what makes good leaders/managers and that most people can do it well if given the training and support. Former General Rick Hillier (Canada) cowrote a book called “Leadership” that I wish every civilian boss would read because he explained how and why a good leader’s job boils down to clearing the path for the people you manage to get their work done.

  7. Katie the Fed*

    I would also add:

    “Can you handle not being in the spotlight, and letting your team members shine?”

    To me that’s been the biggest change, and actually the part I like the most. It’s not about me being the superstar – it’s about me making sure my team members have what they need to succeed, and then letting them get all the credit and glory. Not everyone can do that though, and that’s ok. But you need to know that if you can’t step out of the spotlight, management probably isn’t for you.

  8. Lils*

    I like the points you made in your article, Alison, but I would add that a person can learn to be a better manager–it’s not all based on whether you’re “cut out” for it. Moreover, it’s worth the time and effort spent reading and practicing, because a bad boss can really poison the office environment.

    Like some others above, I’m not naturally good at this. I’ve had little formal training and my organization doesn’t care one way or the other (and sometimes actively undermines me). But since I stumbled across your blog, I’ve been really trying to stretch myself, read more, practice those difficult and time-consuming techniques, and have those hard conversations. So even though I may have started out as a mediocre manager, I’m doing vastly better now.

    So now that I realize I sometimes do the complaining about company decisions thing (only a couple of times…about minor things…but they were SO weird and counterproductive it was hard to stay positive) I will *stop it*! :)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh yes, I definitely don’t mean to imply that people can’t learn to be a better manager — in fact, all good managers started out not-good and had to learn as they went. That said, some people find some of the stuff that you need to do to be a good manager so painful or unpleasant that they don’t do it, or they only do it halfheartedly, no matter what guidance they get — and I would say that those people indeed are not cut out to be managers.

      1. Lils*

        That’s true–effort and caring about whether you’re doing a good job at it are probably the most important qualities!

        And speaking of hard conversations, I should thank you for all your coaching on this site–I was able to have the most difficult conversation ever with one of my reports. I’d been procrastinating for MONTHS, and finally, even though I was extremely nervous, I made myself be assertive and do it. It wasn’t exactly pleasant, but I made it through and the negative behavior has stopped (for now, at least). I know that next time, I’ll be able to do it with less worry and much more quickly! :)

  9. LovesHR*

    GREAT observations!! These criteria remind me of a manager we just let go. He literally did the opposite of all of these. He wreaked havoc, and should have been let go much sooner than he was. On another note, one of my pet peeves is to see managers who are promoted simply because they are good at what they do, and/or have a great work ethic. Just because you are great at getting shipments out on time, and/or work all day Saturday and Sunday to do so, doesn’t (necessarily) mean you will be able to manage an entire department. So much time is dedicated to “people issues” that promoting the wrong person for the wrong reasons can really come back to bite the company in its proverbial butt.

    1. HR Guy*

      I agree, but sometimes when the type of work that you do doesn’t lend itself to test the management waters, you have to risk promoting the people who are “good at what they do, and/or have a great work ethic.” I think that’s where Alison’s advice on learning to become a better manager comes into play. As she said, no one starts out as a good manager, but you can certainly learn to improve.

      1. Jamie*

        I agree – but what can suck is that in some companies it can be impossible for an outstanding individual contributor to take that step back down the ladder if they do find that management isn’t for them.

        Sometimes there seems to be shame infused in taking a non-managerial career path and I think that’s unfortunate because a lot of people (and I’m specifically thinking of tech and engineers, but I’m sure it applied in other positions as well) are really valuable contributors – just not at management tasks.

        1. JM in England*

          Definitely agree that there seems to be a stigma attached to taking non-management career paths. Decided a long time ago that I am more effective as an individual contributor (I’m in a tech field btw). When asked to describe my career goals at interviews and performance reviews, have used a military analogy that I am a better soldier than a general. Also, without the soldiers, how does anything actually get done?

        2. Christine*

          Can I hug you Jamie?? lol. I have no intentions of taking a managerial career path–and this article just confirms that this is the right decision for me–and have been concerned that not wanting to be a manager will be a career killer for me given that I have a Masters degree.

        3. Tiff*

          Totally agree with this comment Jamie. My husband is a techie, and he’s not much of a people person. I think if he had his way, he’d only interact with other techies who knew as much as he does or more on a daily basis. Management is really not his goal, but in his field technical expertise frequently trumps supervisory or management skills. Lots of the times the lead techs as paid more than the “managers” who set their schedules and approve their time cards. That works great for him.

      2. Joey*

        This is where your creativity comes in HR GUY. It’s up to you to help managers minimize the risk of promoting someone to a manager role that isn’t proven.

  10. Cassie*

    We have a manager who thinks she is the smartest one of all and that everyone else is stupid. It’s apparent in the way she talks to people (also, she has commented on how smart she is).

    If she asks someone to do something, and that person asks a question (for clarification), she becomes defensive because she thinks that person is questioning her decision/request.

    She’s also awful at giving corrections/feedback. Either she will over-generalize, e.g. “you’re not doing a good job” (rather than “please proofread this document before sending it out for printing) or she will complain about the person to her friends in the office without actually addressing the issue with the person. How does she expect people to improve? [It recently occurred to me that just as she doesn’t give specific feedback to her staff, none of her superiors have specifically told her that she can’t bully her staff either. I mean, sure, it should be common sense, but as they say – common sense is not all that common].

  11. Christine*

    Thank you for posting this Alison – it is definitely essential reading for anyone considering a managerial career path.

    What would be your advice for anyone who, after reading this, discovers that they’re not cut out to be a manager, even with proper training? I like that Jamie and a couple others above brought up a bit of a bias against those who take a non-managerial path. I feel like, at least in my field (human services/nonprofits), that there is an expectation to eventually take on a managerial role, especially if you have a Masters degree.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This has come up here a lot recently and it’s probably worth its own post after I spend a little more time thinking about it! But my initial thought is: Be really, really awesome at what you do. If you’re great enough at it, you’re going to be able to find employers who are thrilled to have you just do that, rather than trying to push you on to a management path. The right employer will be glad to have you.

      That said, I suspect there may be fields that might be exceptions to this (anyone want to name their field as being one?).

      1. Christine*

        This has come up here a lot recently and it’s probably worth its own post after I spend a little more time thinking about it!

        Probably all from me! :P

    2. Joey*

      You hav to find an employer who is okay with that. And you have to be able to convince that new employer that first, theres no nothing wrong with you, that you’re a high performer and that you will indeed be content without progression. For me the biggest concerns are pay progression and drive. Unfortunately, a lot of people that stay in a position for a long time are there because they dont want to put in the work to progress. Im not saying everyone is like this but a lot are. In my experiences people that don’t want to progress also generally think that they should still get periodic pay raises regardless of how long they’ve been in their position. They don’t realize that at some point you aren’t going to be worth another pay increase unless you take on more responsibility.

      1. Jamie*

        In my experiences people that don’t want to progress also generally think that they should still get periodic pay raises regardless of how long they’ve been in their position.

        I don’t understand that line of thinking. I have known some people, good at their jobs, who don’t want to move to higher levels of management (or management at all) but they understand that with that decision comes the consequence of stagnating salary wise (across the board COLAs excepted.)

        If you want to reward an employee who isn’t expanding in their job isn’t that what bonuses are for? It’s a singular thank you, if management wants to do something, without pushing the salary past a cap where now it exceeds the value it brings the job.

        At some point for all of us there is a limit to how much money are jobs are worth.

        1. The IT Manager*

          +1. I agree 100%, Jamie, but Joey (if I recall correctly) and I went back and forth a bit on this precise issue a few weeks back. I said it was illogical to expect pay raises (more than cost of living) for doing the exact same job with no more responsibility, but he said that’s in his experience people still expect pay increases without increases in responsibility.

          My experience is particular. I was in the military (up or out), but I saw government civilians happily sit tight in the same job for years with no promotion. They remained in the same grade (GS-13 for example), but the grades to have “steps” internal to them that allow for pay increases. That would allow someone to continue to get pay increases (more than cost of living) up to the point where they reached the max step. Then there were no more pay increases. This is a very well understood system where negotiation (other being awarded a higher step) is not an option.

          The one area where an employee for a commercial company might legitimately expect a pay increase with no increased responsibility would be if the market rate for her position were to rise. Then she could try to negotiate to be paid market value, but that negotiation has to include a threat of leaving the company since the employee is not suddenly adding more value to the company than before.

          If Alison does give this topic its own post, I’d like to see this addressed as well – not that you can’t have increased responsibility without being a manager but there if you choose not to move up and take on more what should you expect in terms of pay increases.

      2. Scott M*

        Sometimes those pay raises happen without additional responsibility, then the employer realizes the employee is at the top of the pay scale, and suddenly starts expecting more responsibility from the employee. So watch out for that also.

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