what managers learn that workers don’t know

Have you ever noticed that often when people get promoted to management, their perspective on workplaces issues changes?

It’s because as a manager, you see things that you might never have been exposed to as a regular employee, and you come to view workplace questions through a different lens than the one you used previously. As a result, a manager’s stance on common workplace issues often ends up changing, often to his or her own surprise.

Here are some of the most common ways that your perspective might change after becoming a manager.

Turnover isn’t necessarily bad. Employees tend to raise their eyebrows every time a department loses an employee, but managers often see it differently. Most managers really care about retaining great employees, but care far less about retaining others. And some they’re downright happy to see leave, even though they might not let on to others.

Bonuses and raises are retention strategies, not rewards. Employees often feel entitled to an annual bonus or raise in exchange for good work, but these things aren’t rewards for a job well done. They’re given out because the company wants to retain good employees. If a manager knows that an employee is going to be leaving the company soon (because she’s going back to school, for example, or has accepted another job), that bonus isn’t likely to materialize—because at that point retention isn’t possible.

Not every position is designed for growth or satisfaction. To employees, it often feels obvious that employers should provide growth and development opportunities. But not every position is designed for that. Some roles are fairly rigid by their nature and don’t have any room for advancement (because the other roles on staff require different experience or skill sets). Many managers are perfectly happy to hire people knowing that they’ll only stay a year or two and then move on when they get bored, and they don’t feel obligated to try to keep them fulfilled beyond that. (They should, however, be upfront with job candidates that this is the case before hiring anyone. It’s wrong to blindside people with this after they’re already on the job.)

“Other duties as assigned” covers a lot of turf. Whether your job description contains that “other duties as assigned” clause or not, most managers are going to expect you to pitch in as needed. That could mean anything from covering for an absent colleague to helping the CEO with a pet project that’s totally unrelated to your core duties. Managers view you as being there to help the company achieve its goals, and the best way for you to do that can change on occasion. You can certainly speak up if you object, but it’s not always going to be negotiable.

No matter how pressing a problem is, something else might be more important. Employees sometimes wonder why on earth their manager isn’t paying more attention to a particular problem, whether it’s a slacking employee or a budget issue or difficulty getting what you need from another department. But when you’re a manager, there are tons of competing issues that you could spend your time and political capital on—from getting your staff raises to killing an unproductive program to adding a staff position to your team. Good managers quickly learn to pick their battles. It might look like they don’t see the value in advocating for something you want, but in many cases, they do but have made the judgment call that something else is a higher priority to focus on right now.

Managers don’t remember everything you’re doing, and we don’t need to. Employees sometimes get annoyed when it seems like their boss has forgotten details of what they’re working on. But managers have to remember all the details of their own work, plus the basics of what a whole team of people are doing, so don’t get irked if they need you to remind them of context or a key detail. It doesn’t mean they don’t care about your work; rather, the reality is that they can’t keep tabs on what every employee is doing every day. (That also means that you shouldn’t resent it if you need to remind your boss before your December performance review of what you achieved back in February.)

Attitude matters a ton. The reality is that being a manager is hard. When people make the job easier by being flexible, professional and pleasant to work with, a manager is more likely to reward them. And when someone is difficult to work with, it doesn’t matter how good the rest of their performance is—the price of keeping them on staff is often too high.

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Dan*

    Your comment about turnover was quite interesting. My company has lost some 20% of its workforce (and replaced most of them) over the last year or so. And yeah, the worker bees noticed. I’m not a manager, but I went down a partial list and said:

    Person 1) He’s always on you tube when you walk by, you complain that he never gets his work done on time, and you’re upset that he’s leaving, or that the company didn’t fight hard enough to keep him?

    Person 2) When he quit, since he was known to be a “busy body”, he had to have a sign on his cube saying where he was going to be so you could find him. I realize you might have been friends with him, but when he’s the *only one* in the company required to be on an old school GPS tracker, are you *sure* management should have tried harder to keep him on?

    Person 3) You know he was on a PIP, right? That’s usually the kiss of death.

    It goes on like that. Of the 30 or so people my company has lost, less than 5 were on the “oh crap, we’re really going to miss him. What did we do wrong?

    AAM, TBH, the other thing you didn’t say about turnover is that if it is too low, you’re probably paying too much in wages. My company does government contracting, and we need a mix of skills and labor rates. We need the balance of junior labor with “senior” leadership. The little recognized fact is that if there is *no* turnover, (and no growth), over time, everybody becomes senior and wants to get paid like it. At that point, the company can’t afford the structure, and the senior people don’t want to do the dirty work. So we actually need mechanisms to create positions for the junior labor. This is either through growth or attrition.

    1. Scott M*

      Interesting point on the senior vs junior thing. Are you talking about ‘senior’ in terms of length of employment? Or in terms of job position.
      While I can see that you might end up with lots of long-term employees over time, I don’t understand how a company can end up with lots of senior positions. There should only be a limited number of positions at any level, as is needed to do the work. Junior people leave for more growth opportunity, and there is your turnover.

  2. Jamie*

    Some workers understand this, but one of the major things changes in mindset is understanding that there is only so much money and if you say yes to A then B, C, and D have to be prioritized depending on remaining resources.

    It’s a lot easier to believe ‘we’d love to give you a raise but we just don’t have the budget’ if you’ve seen the financials and know that’s true – and are privy to the fact that no one is getting a raise and some upper level people are taking cuts.

    And I have seen a mindset that somehow “company money” is endless and the only reason it’s not being doled out is stinginess and not the business reason behind a lot of decisions. And explaining that is often met with disbelief. I don’t know where the idea that companies have bottomless coffers comes from, but it’s not helpful nor is it true.

    1. felipe*

      The issue is that saying ‘we’d love to give you a raise but we just don’t have the budget’ is a disingenuous statement to make. Just like you said in your comment, budgeting is about defining priorities because company money is not endless. If some money goes to one place, it can’t go to another. It’s not that there is NO money or budget; it’s that there are higher priorities than retaining that employee.

      1. Jamie*

        True – in a sterile way – but sometimes the options are between a raise freeze and layoffs. So yes, if it’s a higher priority to not lay people off than to give people raises then that’s true…but I would argue that it still means there’s no room in the budget for raises. YMMV.

      2. Tasha*

        In my academic/research lab experience, expensive equipment often needs to be purchased or other substantial investments made to keep projects running or to start new projects as others are winding down. When that’s the case, it may be a choice between making these investments and not giving raises (in that department and possibly others), or not making those investments and laying some people off while giving others raises.

    2. Sascha*

      I agree, though it’s hard to give your company the benefit of the doubt when you have been told money is rolling in and they aren’t sure what to spend it on, then they turn around and say they just can’t give you a raise or bonus. I understand that raises are long-term and the increased cash flow may not be consistent, but I think good managers would not flaunt how much cash is coming in and then say the budget is tight.

      1. Judy*

        Yep, “record setting profits” in the year end statement, followed by “raise pool of 1.5%” does something to morale.

    3. A Bug!*

      I can see how this can be really tough for managers, especially in certain types of company.

      From a worker’s perspective, they see the folks at the top executive level earning twenty times their salary, so “we value you but it’s not in the budget” can ring a bit hollow.

      But the manager of those workers, the person who has to communicate this to the employees, (probably) isn’t earning twenty times their salaries. And the manager probably doesn’t have the power to increase the salary budget (at least, not without taking budget from areas that actually need the money), and neither can the manager express this to her employees, because as was discussed just recently, that’s pretty inappropriate.

      So, it’s sucky. I guess I don’t really have a point here except that it’s a sucky situation.

  3. AnotherAlison*

    Eh, I’ve never seen the company flush with cash hand it out to us. Our raises always suck when we’ve had a bad year, and they’re average when we have a good year. If the market for good people gets tight, we get better than average. If plenty of people are available, we get the typical COLA percentages. They “reward” us in the years that there is a lot of cash by maybe having a nicer summer meeting/activity.

    I can’t say I’ve ever felt like managers “flaunt” how much cash is coming in. I hear it framed as having some really successful jobs and winning a lot of work. They’re excited to see their work pay off, too, so I think sharing that enthusiasm with their reports is valid.

  4. Tiff*

    A thought that came about when I was reading this list: if you are NOT a manager, but you have management as a professional goal the time to broaden your perspective is now.

    I just saw one of the smartest women I’ve had the pleasure of working with bail on 2 positions and get fired from a 3rd because she can’t get along with management. And I realized from our time working together that she has always had an “us vs. them” mentality when it came to management, no matter WHAT the subject or decision. Just crazy, and it has undercut her in ways I pray she can come back from.

  5. Toni Stark ` Stark Enterprise*

    Perfect post. Your mindset has to change or you will not last long on the management side as ther is a lot less “hand holding” over here. I recently snowed (12+ inches) and it is very difficult to drive around, In my old (union) position, I would have just called in to say I won’t be in. Now that I’m on the management side, I am working from home. Hubby said I should just call off and come roast marshmellows but my responsibilities have changed.

  6. Widget Manager*

    As a relatively new manager (two years), this really struck a chord with me. What stood out was ‘Turnover isn’t necessarily bad.’

    Back when I was at a very low level in my company, some processes were changed and a couple of longtime employees threatened to, and eventually did, leave. There was an anonymous staff survey around the time and I expressed concern that we were losing experienced and knowledgable people.

    Cut to a few years later and my perspective is totally different. I’m now driving change in the organization as part of an ongoing project to be more productive and efficient. There are some grumbles from people who want to continue to make widgets the same way we did 10 years ago when we were the only widget maker in the country. Now that there is more competition out there, we simply must adapt or die. 95% of the people under me are on board with the changes, but those who aren’t have been quite vocal about it, and are taking every opportunity to express their displeasure. You can imagine the toxic effect on their nearby colleagues. We are managing that, but it still takes up too much time!

    So while it would be a shame to lose these people, since they are good at their job, it’s not as if they’re irreplaceable. You can’t win them all, and since there seems to be nothing we can do to make them happy, I’d much rather they find a new job that makes them happy, leaving me free to bring aboard some new and enthusiastic people.

    1. Trysta*

      I’m totally with you. This is my first year as a manager and I now see turnover as a chance to raise standards and keep those that meet those standards rather than bending the rules to accomodate people just because I don’t want to go through the trouble of replacing them.

      If someone wants to leave I’m ok with it and if someone has to be asked to leave, I’m good with that too. Like you said, make room for the enthusiastic fresh faces.

  7. glennis*

    From the article: “Not every position is designed for growth or satisfaction.” This. I’ve been in situations where the choice between two excellent candidates came down to the fact that Candidate One was clearly ambitious and wanted to use our steady, reliable workhorse Admin Ass’t position as a ladder to a higher position in the organization, whereas Candidate Two was more dedicated to staying put and doing a good job – or at least, managed in the interview to mask any ambition to get promoted within a short time.

  8. Trysta*

    I absolutely learned some new things when I took my current position. Like how important attendance is really is to a call center along with other small policies that I took for granted or scoffed at as an employee.

  9. Trysta*

    Wow. So I commented something short first and just finished the article. Really great! It covers every single thing that I’ve dealt with since my first year being a manager. I’m currently dealing with the raise issue this week and just dealt with some attitude from a staff member last month because I had forgotten one of her side tasks that she does.

    Thank you so much! I should print this out and pass it out to my group.

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