Being promoted to a management position over a group that you used to work in is one of the more challenging issues that new managers face. Separating the friendship aspect of your relationship with former peers from your duties and responsibilities as a manager presents an especially difficult challenge.
Recently, in a discussion forum, TechRepublic member Four-Eyes explained how he was suddenly faced with this sensitive issue. Newly promoted to technical manager in a small company of 15 developers, Four-Eyes had particularly close ties to his former peers. He’d actually recommended them for hiring to his bosses. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until he was asked by upper management to implement some stricter rules regarding employee tardiness, limitations on company reimbursements, and employee benefits. Having fully evaluated the changes as reasonable and fair to both sides, Four-Eyes passed on the information to his staff.
Because of their former relationships, his staff felt comfortable coming to him to talk. That’s the good news. The bad news is the talk wasn’t good.
“I’ve been bearing the brunt of my former coworkers’ complaints regarding these new company guidelines, even though we have an HR staff,” said Four-Eyes. The staffers feel the new rules are too strict, anti-employee, and unreasonable. “I know they look to me as someone on their side who can defend them, but how can I tell them (without looking like the bad guy) that management’s on the right track with this? I feel like I’m walking a tightrope between management and the employees.”
Welcome to management
It’s a hard-learned fact for new managers—especially middle managers and those promoted from within the ranks: You can’t be an effective manager and win popularity contests. If you’re a consistently fair and effective manager, your employees will respect you, but that can be a long process in the making. Because you believe in these changes, you should state your reasons why and be strong in your convictions. Even if you didn’t believe in the changes, by virtue of your position as manager, you’d have to resist the temptation to join in or inflame the whine-a-thon. It’s a bad precedent to set.
The very term “middle manager” says it all. If you’re not careful, it can be a position that forces you to be caught in the middle. At best, you’ll be a conduit through which business strategy information from your bosses and issues and concerns from employees cross paths. At worst, in a quest to be liked by everyone, you’ll be walking a tightrope and the only thing keeping you up is the pressure from both sides.
You have to remember that you’re in the position you’re in because someone recognized your skills and value to the company. Trust your instincts on your perception of these changes and deliver that message to your staff.
As member Tim Walsh said, “You’re expected to look out for your subordinates’ best interests and represent them when dealing with upper management. But you’re also expected to enforce management policies and look out for the best interests of the company from a business and financial standpoint.”
How to deliver the “bad” news
To get the complaining to stop, you can try to show your staff the solid reasons for the changes. Oldefar said, “Depending on [the staff‘s] attitudes, I would either give my perspective or lead them towards doing their own analysis and expect a similar conclusion.” But keep in mind that these people may just be looking to gripe. “If that’s the case, just let it slide. These types are not looking for change, and not looking for agreement. They just enjoy complaining.”
Walsh added to this thought: “Explain it in terms of company financial health. Explain it in terms of consequences if these policies aren't implemented. For those few employees that will complain no matter what, you can always take the tack that they are free to find a better deal elsewhere.”
Perhaps if you present the logic behind the need for the changes, your staff will have no choice but to buy into it. They may also present you with reasons why one of two of the changes are unnecessary or could be amended. If that’s the case, then it’s your duty to take those concerns back to upper management. Just make sure the counter arguments are logical and not based on emotion alone.
This situation is one of several that can hurt a new manager’s efforts. It’s not an easy problem to handle, but it can be fixed. If you act consistently, your staff will eventually know they can expect fair treatment from you.
Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.