what every manager should know

Doing the work I do, I’ve witnessed a lot of managers who struggle to transition from being part of a team to effectively managing one. In fact, one of the issues that comes up most frequently in my consulting work is coaching new managers who want to get it right but are walking dangerously close to some common landmines.

Here are eight things that I want to tell them all.

You’ll Develop Managing Skills on the Job

People often become managers because they were great at something else – communications or engineering or whatever you were doing before the management role came along. As they move up, they begin taking on management roles … and discover that the skills needed to get things done as a manager (as opposed to on their own) are entirely different, such as setting goals and holding people accountable to them, giving feedback, building a great team and so forth. And since most managers don’t get much, if any, training in how to manage well, they’re left to figure it out on the job.

This results in some really tough first few years for most managers (and often their teams), and a lot of learning through mistakes. You can’t avoid that entirely, but you can cut down on it by deliberately working on your management skills; don’t be shy about seeking out management classes, books and blogs, and – often most helpful at all – more experienced mentors.

Establish Your Authority, Even If It’s Uncomfortable

If you’re like most new managers, you’re going to feel awkward about doing “manager” things like delegating work and giving feedback. I sure did – in the first year of managing, I was convinced that people would bristle if I was particularly directive on an assignment (“I need you to do X rather than Y”) or made course corrections to a project, let alone if I gave tough feedback. That made doing those things an angst-filled experience for me (and probably for my staff as well), until I figured out that employees expect their manager to do those things. The only person feeling weird about it is the new manager.

So if it doesn’t feel natural to speak and act with the authority of your position in the beginning, fake it until it does – no one else will notice.

Watch What You Say and Do

As a manager, your throwaway remarks are suddenly going to be studied and analyzed. If you express enthusiasm for one person’s idea, people will assume that’s the idea they should back. And if you’re in a grumpy mood, some employees may spend days wondering what they did wrong and if their jobs are in danger.

You can’t entirely avoid sending inadvertent messages like this, but what you can do is to be aware that you’re on a stage now, and be deliberate about finding ways to counteract that effect. For instance, in a meeting you might choose not to weigh in on an idea until everyone else has had their say, to avoid biasing people in favor of your opinion.

Be Clear About What Your Team Shouldn’t Do, Too

It sounds obvious, but managers often get pulled in too many directions instead of figuring out the most important things for their teams to achieve and focusing there. Some activities will have more of an impact than others, and those are the ones you should focus on – which means saying no to the others. Ineffective managers frequently say yes to anything that sounds like a good idea. Effective managers are rigorous about asking, “Is this the best possible way we could be spending our time and resources?”

Don’t Try to Be Friends With the People You Manage

You’ll need to have professional boundaries between you and the people you manage, so that you can objectively assess their work, give direct feedback, and even potentially fire someone one day. That means that you can’t have the same types of office friendships that you probably had before you became a manager. You might really click with someone on your staff and you can have a warm and supportive relationship … but you can’t be friends.

Over and over, I’ve seen new managers think that this message doesn’t apply to them – that they’ll be the exception who can be friends with their staff members without running into problems. But one of the trickiest parts about this rule is that people who violate it always think it’s working out fine, until the moment that it’s not fine at all: the moment that you need to give tough feedback or delegate undesirable work or lay someone off or whatever else comes up that shatters the friendship illusion.

Face It: Some People Just Won’t Like You

If you’re doing your job, not everyone will like you. You’ll need to tell some people their work isn’t good enough, hold people accountable who might not like that, enforce policies that might irritate the heck out of some people, and yes, fire people. It’s unsettling to know that some people will dislike you simply because you’re doing your job, but it’s unavoidable. (And ironically enough, if you’re too invested in being liked, over time the opposite will happen: As problems go unresolved and difficult decisions go unmade, staff members will become frustrated and complain, and the best among them will leave.)

Don’t Sugercoat Critical Feedback

Your staff deserves clear and direct feedback, which means you’ll be having some tough conversations. And you can’t hide behind email either – you need to do it face-to-face. Don’t underestimate how hard it will be the first few times (and even thereafter), and how tempting it will be to soften the message – but you can’t, because while you might feel kinder sugarcoating a difficult conversation, it’s not at all kind to let someone miss an important message.

Treat People With Compassion

Even in the hardest moments, like letting someone go, and even when you’re frustrated or angry, treat everyone you manage with kindness and dignity. You have the power in this relationship, and that comes with the responsibility of exercising it with reason and compassion.

Doing that won’t undermine your authority; in fact, it will generally make you look stronger.

{ 26 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Hi Alison,
    I can’t read this piece, or the last one on this site, because of their own ads. For whatever reason, those ads move around covering your text & keeping their “close” button off the screen. It’s disappointing, & I thought you’d want to know.

  2. HR lady*

    I was able to read it (I use Mozilla Firefox – maybe the browser makes a difference?).

    I thought it was a great article!

      1. Anonymous*

        I was able to view it, but I hate slideshows! Ugh. I realize they generate more ad-serving opportunities, but ugh.

  3. Colorado*

    Great article! Being a people pleaser, the change from engineer to management has not been an easy one. Thank you for your continued advice!

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      Yeah, I have IE8, and the last one linked to this site did the same too. I figure it’s because of the old browser, but you’d think they’d want everyone to be able to read their site.

      1. SJ*

        IE is so obsolete that scads of sites won’t work on it. If the browser can’t keep up with internet technology, it’s the browser’s fault – not the site’s. Notorious issue with IE. I encounter it all the time. At a certain point, the site’s creators would be sacrificing UI and functionality if they tried to cater to users still in 1997. And some things are so outdated that they might work in IE, but nowhere else.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          Well, IE8 isn’t quite THAT ancient, but unfortunately, businesses are very slow to jump on the upgrade bandwagon — they usually wait until they are forced to upgrade. I bet there are a ton of businesses out there still on IE8.

          Supporting a browser that came out 15 years ago and hasn’t been supported for 10: no. Supporting a browser that came out less than 5 years ago and is still in wide use? I guess it’s their choice.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Sorry you guys are having this problem — they are apparently working on it.

      I can’t post the text here due to my agreement with them (they paid me to write it for their site) but hopefully it will be fixed soon!

  4. KarenT*

    Great article!

    When I first became a manager, I struggled because I was brought in to make change and people didn’t like it. I had to shift our department’s focus, which involved a lot of training and grumpy attitudes. It didn’t help that I was promoted over most of my team. My first year was pretty rough but things are great now!

  5. fposte*

    For me the longest learning curve was “What you do and say matters”–that people paid extra attention to what I said and thought because of my rank, and that they would stop working if I started telling them something even if what I was saying wasn’t important. It seems obvious, but when you’re not used to it, it’s a process to remember to factor that in.

    1. Jamie*

      For me the hardest leap was establishing authority – it was forever ago and people who work with me now would find it hard to believe I ever had an issue with this, but it was a struggle.

      I felt weird telling anyone what to do, especially people who had been working decades longer than me.

      Goes to show though, even the stuff that’s super hard in the beginning becomes second nature after a while. Managing is like learning to type – if you learn wrong in the beginning it’s a huge pita to correct your technique and some never do and just keep doing it wrong.

      This post should be required reading.

  6. PPK*

    I hadn’t thought much about it, but the what you do and say is really important. I know I’ve picked apart what a manager has said on more than on occasion. It also matters what you don’t do. It’s a running joke that when my manager shows up at your door something bad happens. Because he’s not a wander around and chat type of guy — so you see him at your door and think “doom!” as a reflex. Not that he’s mean, it’s just usually extra or unpleasant work that now is your topmost priority.

  7. Kerry*

    I just wanted to express my delight in re: the stock photo that accompanies “don’t try to be friends with the people you manage.”

  8. Ruffingit*


    Sometimes I think about what your reaction would be if you walked into my old workplace where poor management (or no management actually) was the norm. What you could have done with that place crosses my mind frequently. I’m glad I no longer work there, but it’s always sad to see a business with a great product not living up to its full potential because of poor management. Good to know you’re consulting because that means at least some places are getting some good advice.

    I’d be interested to know if you’ve ever gone into a business to consult and just had to leave because there was no way any of them could be helped. I’ve definitely worked in places like that myself where nothing anyone offered was taken seriously so people who could have helped the business in many ways just had to leave and take their great ideas elsewhere.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      When you said “I’d be interested to know if you’ve ever gone into a business to consult and just had to leave because there was no way any of them could be helped,” my mind leaped immediately to Amy’s Baking Company and Gordon Ramsay. Talk about not letting anyone help you. >_<

      1. Ruffingit*

        Oh man, yes!! That is a stellar example of the serious crazy that exists in some places and how some people just refuse to hear anything that resembles sanity.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh yes. I’ve turned down clients at the outset because it was clear that it was simply going to be a frustrating exercise in non-change (and a waste of their money). And once I removed myself from an ongoing consulting role when it became clear that there was no way for me to have an impact.

  9. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

    Far and away, my biggest problem was upward delegation.

    I was young (early 20’s managing people 10 or more years older than I was), good at the job I was promoted from to then manage and **utterly** clueless that the job of management was about getting my team to produce.

    All I did was take the hard work from them and then work 60/70 hours a week to make our goals.

    Of course I burnt out and the entire thing ended up being a disaster.

    30 years later (in a completely different environment), I still struggle with the upward delegation demon, but I have him locked in a cage most of the time.

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