New research sheds light on how first-time managers adapt, or don’t adapt, to their role.
In most careers there comes a point where the only upward move is the jump into management. This means a lot of people end up in charge of a team for reasons other than their suitability, which means a lot of managers struggle.
Having acknowledged this fact, many organisations provide first-time managers with targeted training. They send them to do a business course and/or otherwise focus on upskilling their people and project management skills.
But, if this is an exercise in box-ticking, it kind of misses the point. Our jobs are more than just a thing we do with our days, they are a huge part of our identity. This is all the more important to remember when referring to people taking their first step into management. Going from thinking only about yourself to being responsible for others is a big shift. And, because the role is so reliant on interpersonal ability, a good manager isn’t someone who has been to X amount of courses. It’s someone who has embraced the role – in a deep personal sense – and knows how to navigate its challenges.
Who am I?
In an interesting study, Learning to become manager: The identity work of first-time managers, academics from the Stockholm School of Economics regularly interviewed six newly-appointed managers with a view to examining how their identity changed over their first year in the new role.
As the authors explain: “Rather than only learning to do, manager learning also entails learning to understand oneself as a manager and to enact (“become”) this understanding in one’s day-to-day life.’”
There are several interesting findings from the report. The first is that “the most far-reaching learning seems to have been experienced when events challenged the managers’ sense of who they were.”
One of the people studied was a former HR specialist who pushed for a senior role and was able to put his years of theory into practice. On his first day as a manager he says that he used to be frustrated by managers. “I’ve always found it strange that they can’t seem to do the obvious. Like, why don’t they deal with underperforming employees? I got to the point that I wanted to try it myself, to stand on the frontline. To be honest, though: now that I’m here, I feel very uncertain.”
One month in and those nerves meet reality. “I know how important performance talks are, and now I really need to learn how to hold them myself. I don’t have a clue! I have to get down-to-earth, but it feels incredibly difficult to translate my knowledge into practice.”
At six months he was feeling more confident. The performance reviews went wll. But the confidence doesn’t last. At the eight month mark, a reorganisation proved to be “an extremely painful experience” as he received significant pushback on his plan.
“All change management books talk about grounding your ideas, but they don’t get across how much you have to work at it. I nearly got kicked out. It goes against what I used to preach when I was an HR specialist, and, I hate to say it, but what I’ve learned is: if you want to make it as manager, nothing is more important than politics.”
It’s bad enough that he finds himself wanting to return to his former role.
After 13 months it’s worse. He finds himself incapable of the very thing he used to get frustrated at. “There are three employees whose performance is shaky. I have to do something about it, but I keep putting it off. I guess I’m not a doer after all. It’s just that I feel so tired and confused.”
It’s clear that the challenges the man faces cut to who he is, not just what he does. His own identity is being reassessed as the months go by.
There a couple of other lessons from this story. The first is that theory will only take you so far. The second is that there is no single moment that transitions someone from new manager to successful manager. All of the subjects of this research wavered back and forth, telling themselves and others that they’ve made it, only to later seriously reconsider.
This chart from the study nicely illustrates this experience.
Identity isn’t just about capability, it’s also about habits and tendencies. Do managers view themselves as employee advocates or bottom-line focussed supervisors? Also, these views aren’t static – you can’t pigeonhole people.
For example, one of the managers studied had for decades defined herself as a non-manager. “I had a very painful experience when I was 25. My manager told me that I was responsible for the people in my team, but I had no formal mandate. I was not at all prepared. My team told me that I was crap. I broke down and said to myself: never be a manager.”
At 45, she began her first official managerial role. She felt she was ready and began with hope. She approached her role as a “manager who cares”. She encouraged her staff to open up and they did – four out of the fifteen people she had performance talks with cried during the meeting. It was exhausting but important to her.
Eight months into the role she herself had a new manager and was tasked with helping with the company restructure. This forced her to question her approach. “Obviously, I have to support the reorganisation. I’ll lose my position if I go against the management. But equally obviously, I have to protect my employees. The new work demands are horrendous, and I couldn’t face my employees if I gave in. I don’t know what to do.”
At 11 months she came to a realisation: “I finally got it into my head: I’m management now. I have to make tough decisions and stand by them. That’s my job! Of course, the employees aren’t going to like everything at first, but dealing with that comes with the job.”
Then at 12 months it’s clear that she had completely adjusted from her “manager who cares” outlook; she became someone who tried to strike a balance between employee and employer interests. She talked about getting buy-in, thought about the staff she “really wants to keep” and said she’d tell her team that changes are coming “whether they like it or not”.
These changing attitudes are why the researchers resist making larger narratives out of the “small stories” they collect over the year.
“The managers’ small stories show us how quickly newfound ideas about the person one is can be upended and, equally, how quickly self-doubt can dissipate. They show us how the excitement of progress can turn into the despair of failure and perhaps excitement once again,” the authors write.
There are a few other points that are helpful to anyone responsible for overseeing managers or management training. The first is that annual performance reviews aren’t going to cut it. Managers’ opinions of themselves and their job is changing month to month, asking them after 12 months how they’re going is no way to get a real answer. Plus, if they’re struggling you might be able to help them.
Another major lesson, the authors of the study say, is that mentoring and other “real world learning forms” are crucial. “As such learning forms focus on the challenges, problems, and dilemmas already present in the managers’ everyday working lives, they are highly suitable for supporting managers in reflecting on and learning from current experiences in real-time.”
Want to help first-time managers become star performers? Why not sign up for this AHRI short course, ‘Building and Developing Talent‘.