advice for first-time managers

Becoming a manager is one of the biggest and most stressful professional transitions that you’re likely to make in the course of your career. When you’re new to managing, it can be tough to realize that the skills that served you well up until this point aren’t necessarily the same ones that will make you successful managing a team.

Managing well means that you’ll have to get comfortable with – and eventually master – a whole new set of skills and behaviors. Here are five of the most important.

1. You’ll need to get comfortable with different boundaries. New managers who are used to being friends with their co-workers often have trouble adjusting their work relationships to fit the confines of their new role. When you’re managing people, you can have warm, friendly relationships with them – but you can’t be friends in a real sense. You have to be able to give critical feedback and make impartial decisions, and you might even need to lay off or fire an employee one day. And even if you think you’re perfectly impartial, appearances matter too. If you’re going to lunch every day with one employee or hanging out with another outside of work, people aren’t likely to believe you’re behaving impartially even if you are. They may also be reluctant to approach you with problems about someone you’re seen to be friends with. This is a tough lesson for new managers to learn, but it’s crucial.

2. You’ll need to get comfortable exercising authority. Authority often feels really weird when you first have it, and it can take awhile to get comfortable using it. In a desire to be nice and to be liked, new managers often shy away from using their authority at all, which can lead to unclear expectations and frustrations on both sides. Other new managers get the balance wrong in the other direction – becoming tyrannical and rigid. It’s important to get the balance right and to see authority as a tool you need to use to get things done, but not as something to lord over others. And speaking of authority …

3. You’ll need to get comfortable with the fact that addressing and resolving problems is now one of the most important parts of your job. Managers sometimes avoid addressing problems because they don’t like conflict or they fear hurting someone’s feelings (or making themselves uncomfortable). But it’s no more OK to do that than it would be to neglect any other key part of your job. You can’t manage effectively if you’re not willing to have hard conversations, make tough decisions and sometimes disappoint people.

4. You’ll need to get comfortable not doing all the work yourself. Managers often become managers because they were good at doing their own work – and it can be tough to step out of that comfort zone. But as a manager, a large chunk of your time now should be spent on the work of managing – i.e., overseeing other people’s work rather than doing it yourself. That can actually take more time, and it’s a skill that new managers may not have yet. As a result, the temptation can be strong to just do things yourself, especially if you don’t think your staff will do the work as well or as fast as you would. But if you don’t let your staff take on meaningful pieces of work, you’ll be forfeiting the power of having a team of people working with you (and you will be a manager people aren’t excited to work for).

5. You’ll need to get used to being on a stage. As a manager, your team will pay an enormous amount of attention to what you say and do, your demeanor and your moods. Your comments and your energy will carry much more weight than they did before you became a manager, and your offhand remarks may be scrutinized for hidden meanings. That doesn’t mean that you need to walk on eggshells, but it does mean you need to be thoughtful about how you manage your emotions, and especially your stress, at work. If you’re used to using the office as a place to vent, find a different place to do that now.

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Nick*

    What is the average time in answering a question after it was submitted? I submitted one right before Thanksgiving and I’m wondering if it was received.

    1. Snark*

      I’m not Alison, but given that you got this aut0-response:

      “I answer as many questions as I can, but the volume of mail I receive means that I’m not able to respond to everything, and some (very worthy) questions end up going unanswered. If this happens with your question, please know that I really regret it. But if I do publish it, I’ll email you with a link to my answer so you’ll know when it appears.”

      when you submitted your question less than two weeks ago, maybe be patient and don’t derail the comments thread.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If you received the auto-reply, it was received. My backlog is big, though, and the volume means I’m not able to answer every question I receive. If I do answer it, it could be days or it could be months. (I’m sorry! That’s the impact of the backlog, and I don’t answer things in order received for a variety of reasons.)

  2. Anonymouse*

    Oh, how I want to print out this advice and place it in my clueless manager’s mailbox, but that would be passive aggressive. :(

    1. Susan K*

      Me too! My manager is new at managing and desperately needs to learn that he can’t be buddies with direct reports (and he can’t complain about/make fun of some direct reports to other direct reports).

    2. Lindsey*

      My vote is to print it out and share it with a sticky note saying “Read this interesting article lately and thought I’d share with you.” One vote from an internet stranger!

  3. Not Today Satan*

    I’m a team lead which is the literal worst. I have all of the responsibilities and drawbacks of managing people without any of the authority–which of course the people I supervise know. Most of my team is good anyway but I have one problem employee. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve raised the issue with my manager, and if she doesn’t have my back I’ll have to just quit. It sucks.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      My husband was in a team lead position and experienced the same thing. He also got no extra pay in addition to no authority, yet everything came down on him when something went wrong. He told his boss he wanted to step down and just be part of the team, and he’s so much happier now. It didn’t impact his pay since he wasn’t getting anything extra anyway, but it saved him his sanity.

    2. Red Reader*

      Also a team lead. My manager is pretty good about keeping the drawbacks in her court though, because I don’t have any HR authority. She’s way too nice though, but at least that’s more likely to backfire on her rather than just me.

    3. Magenta Sky*

      Were I come from, the term for your position is “blame boy.” It’s rarely unintentional that it works out that way. And the only rational solution is a different job.

    4. Ramona Flowers*

      I’m having flashbacks to my own experience of this. The worst thing was that the manager would let people change deadlines or assignments instead of redirecting them to me, so they’d ask him instead as they knew I would say no because I needed them to do the thing as agreed.

    5. Nolan*

      I avoided the management track at my last job for this same reason. Step 1 was Team Lead which had no power and tons of unmanageable responsibility.

  4. Lisa B*

    The advice about not being the “do’er” anymore is SPOT ON. I’m a year into my first official teapot design management role and that’s what’s tripped me up more than anything else. I love what I do, and loved teapot design! Trying to manage the designers, and keep my hands off of the actual design, is hard. But I realized I was not getting to my strategic directives because I was too tangled up in the weeds.

    1. Snark*

      Yeah, it’s hard for me to delegate stuff. It’s a weird feeling to be like, okay, a Thing needs done, best get busy, and then go, oh wait, Fergus handles Thing, and then forward Thing to Fergus and…..then it gets done. And I’m like, huh.

      1. TheMonkey*

        Yes. And when I do successfully delgate, then I realize that my job is telling other people to do THEIR jobs and I feel weird and unproductive.

        1. Arya Snark*

          Yeah – it’s definitely a learning curve to understand that my job isn’t to do much actual work, it’s just to make sure all the work gets done.

    2. NW Mossy*

      This is one of the great merits of having your first manager position be over a team doing at least somewhat different work than what you did as an individual contributor. It makes it a lot easier to avoid the do-all-the-things trap, because you literally don’t know how to do what your team does.

      Depending on the manager role, it may also be possible to have structural constraints to prevent you from getting in the weeds too much. I have read-only or no access to the primary applications my team uses, so even though I have the technical know-how, my limited access rights ensure that I delegate appropriately. It’s set up that way for controls reasons, but I appreciate this side benefit.

    3. Where's the Le-Toose?*

      My biggest hurdles were establishing a new set of boundaries with coworkers and delegating. I’m now starting my 8th year as a manager and it took some hard lessons early on to cause me to stop tinkering with the day-to-day work product and focus on bigger issues! As for setting boundaries, it became much easier once I managed a team that only knew me as a manager.

    4. Blue_eyes*

      Yes. My biggest thing to work on (and the only thing my boss ever tells me to improve on) is delegating.

      My position is a little tricky because I am both the manager to other staff, and also an individual contributor in my own right. Some of my staff have very clearly established job duties that don’t overlap with mine, so it’s easy to delegate work to them that falls within their purview. But then there are other staff that have coverage-based jobs (they have to be physically present for a certain shift) but often have a lot of downtime. I have the power to delegate any of my work to them, but it’s sort of peripheral to their job duties so I often don’t.

  5. Anon for This*

    I would also argue that you need to get used be being held responsible for your direct reports work.

    1. Beer Thirty*

      Which really f***ing sucks. I don’t like being held responsible for the actions of others. Which is why I’d rather just do the work myself.

  6. Trout 'Waver*

    One thing I learned the hard way: It takes time, coaching, and practice to learn management skills. It doesn’t just happen. You have to put in work just like any other skill. I look back and cringe at some of the mistakes I made when I started.

    Also, when you make mistakes while you are still learning, admit to them, own them, and do better next time. You will make mistakes. I’ve seen some new managers refuse to admit mistakes and it doesn’t go anywhere productive.

    1. limenotapple*

      I missed this when I posted mine, but you said it better! Owning them has helped considerably. People react differently to your mistakes if you take responsibility!

  7. hayling*

    I had a terrible boss (who was promoted from an IC role) who did the opposite of all of these! She played favorites (it was way past the “appearance” part), did the work for her employees who were slipping, was afraid to be the bad guy, etc.

  8. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

    As a first-time manager-to-be, thank you, thank you, thank you for this post.

  9. limenotapple*

    I’d also add, “you’re going to make mistakes; learn from them but don’t lose sleep.” I have made mistakes that were all part of learning this job, but owning them and learning from it and moving to the next thing have helped me manage it.

  10. AnonAndOn*

    There was an issue with the first bullet point at the job I left a year ago. The office was too small and managers were hanging out with their reports daily for lunch and at times after work. One minute they were buddy-buddy and the next they had to give them feedback about their performance?! There didn’t seem to be any proper boundaries set regarding that. And in some cases people started out as co-workers while one would rise to the level of a supervisor/manager but those relationships never changed accordingly.

  11. Arya Snark*

    #4 is the hardest for me but I’m finally coming to terms with it. My biggest issue is that I can complete certain tasks in a fraction of the time that it takes someone else. I’m all about efficiency so letting the person whose job it is to do said task just do it no matter how long it takes her is hard for me but I’m learning to just let it be and hoping that eventually she’ll be able to get it done quicker someday.

  12. Adlib*

    I never want to be a manager, but ever since coming to this blog, I know EXACTLY what good and bad management looks like. I used to have a manager/team lead who refused to delegate and then got mad I wasn’t working as much as she was. (I asked for work, btw.)

  13. It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's ... Billable Hour Man!*

    Not that I have any management experience, but I’d add “emphasize precision in communication” to the list — from the standpoint of an underling’s wish list.

    e.g. it is very, very easy to create fear where none was necessary with a vague “Can you come into my office?” when “Can you come into my office to discuss X?” would have done the trick — even though the former was never meant to imply an issue…

  14. Lora*

    Also,, thing I wish new managers would do: read! There are oodles of books and trainings and whatnot available. If your employer doesn’t have them, see if you can get training from a local college or professional society. Never flail alone! It will help sooooo much because there will be events when you absolutely do not know how to react in the moment, or you want to react inappropriately, and you’re like crap, now what do I do. The training and education will give you scripts and things to say that you can sort of say on autopilot until you figure out the correct thing to do. Because there will be craziness you can’t even with, the full range of human behavior on display. And you’re supposed to be the grownup who knows how to deal with it.

    Sort of like when you are parenting or otherwise dealing with a very small child: the things they come up with are Out There, things YOU certainly never did as a child, and it takes practice before you can react calmly to the temper tantrum with “Okay, you’re going to your room until you can behave,” or “I know you’re upset, but it’s dinner time now so come to the table,” etc. At first it’s just a friggin nightmare when they have a meltdown in the middle of Target and scream like someone is tearing their arms off, but after some practice you get stoic. It goes a LOT faster getting to stoic if you have had specific lessons in how to deal with it. Same with management, you will get to capable a lot faster if you have lessons in how to deal with people. Only instead of “maybe you will make better choices tomorrow,” the script is, “hang on a minute, let’s slow down and make sure I understand the problem,” “I can see you’re very upset, how about you take a few minutes to have a cup of tea and collect yourself and we will talk about this later?” and “let me give you the number for Facilities, they are the ones who set the thermostat”.

  15. Shoe*

    I’m in a situation where I befriended someone at work, both because I wanted to be closer to her professionally (I’m trying to do more work in her area of expertise) and because I think she’s cool and would love to be her friend. Currently, we are at approximately the same level, but I was kind of trying to get a partial appointment in her department. I told her all of my plans, hopes, dreams, desires, emotions, feelings about my boss–stuff you’d tell a peer. We scheme together to try to get what we want at work (not in any bad way, just kind of talking stuff out and then figuring out the best way to get others on board with our ideas!).

    Well, there was a major shake-up in her department when two senior managers suddenly quit, and now it’s looking like she might be promoted. And given that I was trying to get a partial appointment in her department, she might become my boss! I feel so uncomfortable that we have the kind of relationship we do, and I’m really struggling thinking about how it might have to change if she becomes one of my bosses. On the one hand, great, because I know she likes me and thinks I do good work, and also I like her and think she deserves a nice promotion. On the other hand….I’ll be so sad to lose my friend and partner in crime! I really had no inkling that things would start to shake out this way or I might have acted differently.

  16. Nardole*

    Any advice on being seconded into a management position? I’m only doing the job for 3 months (which I’m happy about!) and then I’ll be back on the same level as the people I’m currently managing (who I’ve now been working with for several years).

    1. Lindsey*

      The suggestion I have is to read through the blog archives especially topics for new managers. Good luck!

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