Newly promoted managers who feel their expectations don’t align with the realities of their promotion become an immediate flight risk. New research offers an interesting and simple remedy.
Imagine you’ve got a loyal, capable employee who expresses an interest in rising up in the ranks. Let’s call him Alex.
Alex is a sales coordinator and has been with you for five years. He’s great at his job; he often impresses senior stakeholders; and he has even tried his hand at supervisory work. So when a management position becomes available, it makes sense to put him forward.
Alex is stoked about the promotion and thrilled to be recognised for all his hard work. He’s excited about the prospect of more money, responsibility and prestige; it’s everything he thought he wanted.
Eighteen months later, Alex schedules a meeting with you. He says he’s not happy in his role. The shine of the pay rise wore off quickly – as it usually does – and the work is miles away from what he imagined it would be; he misses dealing with clients. He says he’s actively looking for a new job and hands in his notice.
Alex was a loyal employee who was adequately supported during the first year of the promotion and rewarded for his great work. So what went wrong?
You might think Alex simply wasn’t ready to step up, but the answer could be more complex than that, and perhaps his resignation could have been avoided.
New research by Nishani Bourmault, assistant professor at NEOMA Business School in France, and Michel Anteby, professor of management and organisations at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, looks into how this employee disenchantment post promotion comes to the fore. They call it ‘managerial blues’.
Bourmault speaks to HRM about the research and offers advice for HR about managing this flight risk.
(Haven’t got time to read the whole article? We’ve summarised some of the key points at the bottom).
Got the newly promoted managerial blues
The thing about managerial blues is that it can blindside the newly promoted employee just as much as it does their employer. They might have always imagined themselves in a management position – that is, after all, often seen as the natural progression journey for most people in an organisational structure – but the reality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In their research, Bourmault and Anteby interviewed 58 employees split into two groups: subway drivers and station agents (those selling tickets) working in the Paris subway system. These two groups were interviewed after their transitions into management.
Subway workers might seem like an interesting subject choice. Bourmault explains that they had access to this group of employees – as part of a separate piece of work – and noticed a theme occurring in the group of newly promoted subway drivers (more on that in a moment).
“We were talking to [two groups of] people who had very similar roles, educational backgrounds, expectations of management and desires to become a manager, but they were having really different experiences,” says Bourmault.
When offered a promotion opportunity, both groups were excited to “evolve professionally”, “make more money” and “learn something new”, Bourmault relayed in a Harvard Business Review article. All new managers underwent a year-long training program to prepare them to step up.
However, when Bourmault and Anteby returned to interview the newly appointed managers around four years later, they were surprised to find more than two thirds of the former subway drivers (now supervisors) were experiencing managerial blues and had either already applied for a different role or were planning to change roles soon (it’s not clear if these were roles within the Paris subway or with a new employer). The former agents, however, didn’t present the same flight risk.
What gets employees out of bed?
So what caused the disenchantment from the newly promoted subway drivers? Turns out, it was all about their sense of meaning and purpose.
“In our research, the people experiencing managerial blues had really specific expectations around personal responsibility in their past [job], but they didn’t necessarily find that in their new managerial job,” says Bourmault.
“The subway drivers, we found, had a similar sense of [public responsibility] as you might see in a healthcare worker, for example,” she says. “People don’t necessarily think about someone driving a subway as feeling like that, but they did.”
Because many were dealing with life-or-death situations, such as suicides and accidents on the platforms, the participants said they were attentive, careful and aware of not putting lives at risk. One driver told them: “On one subway train there are approximately 600 to 800 passengers, so we are responsible for all the passengers, for the safety, for everything that happens.”
Of the two thirds of subway drivers who were actively looking for new roles, they said they felt nothing they did really mattered as a manager and that they wanted to move into a position where they could make a bigger difference.
“It’s important to think about the expectations that people are bringing from their former roles … and what they find meaningful and important,” says Bourmault.
“I definitely think HR has an important role in both preparing people to have proper expectations of what this role … That’s something that’s often overlooked when we hire or decide to promote someone. Research shows when people know what to expect, usually an [organisational] transition tends to pan out better.”
Autonomy was also another important factor for the drivers because they were used to operating alone.
“They felt this direct cause and effect [when they] made a mistake versus becoming a manager when there are so many other people involved. [It could be] hard to see where responsibility lies.”
“[Think] about what expectations a person is bringing with them from their past roles. That’s something that’s often overlooked when we hire or decide to promote someone.” – Nishani Bourmault, assistant professor at NEOMA Business School
This could quite easily translate in a corporate environment. Employees used to operating in their own bubble, without anyone relying on them directly, mightn’t enjoy the new-found sense of responsibility laid on their shoulders. Not only do they have to think about their own triumphs and challenges, they’re responsible for those of their team too.
When you’re promoting someone, it’s common to think about the skills, networking and social capital they’re likely to bring to the role, she says, but we pay less attention to the “fuzzy concepts” such as an individual’s purpose and expectations. Ignoring these can be just as detrimental as failing to upskill the new manager in an essential skill.
How can you get on the front foot and avoid losing a talented portion of your workforce?
Bourmault suggests taking the time to understand more about what drives your employees; what gets them out of bed every morning?
For example, if you’ve got a creative employee who is about to move into a management position, take the time to ask questions about what they love most about their current job. Is it working on the strategy? Is it the sense of achievement they get from submitting a project they’ve worked on from start to finish? Is it getting out and doing field research?
With this information in hand, think about how you can use their responses to inform the job design process. For example, could you carve out one day per week or fortnight that was dedicated to them producing creative work alone?
“We’ve used the example of nurses being promoted to supervisors before. Maybe you don’t completely alleviate them from their patient care. They’ll still have their managerial duties, but they can still connect with that sense of personal responsibility.”
Independence is also important, says Bourmault. As shown with the subway drivers, having complete ownership over something was important. While these new managers have a larger responsibility to their team now, allowing them to retain solo ownership of a project could help during the transition stages.
Bourmault also suggests coaching the newly promoted manager to shift their sense of purpose. Instead of gaining their fulfilment and purpose from helping a patient, for example, they need to learn how to derive the same purpose from seeing someone in their team learn a new skill or improve in an area where they were previously struggling.
This can be a difficult transition to manage. Many employees could be used to seeing their peers as competition; they want to make sure they’re producing work that surpasses their colleagues. HR might need to remind that individual of the power imbalance that now exists between them and their team; a competitive attitude won’t help anyone (or the business). Instead, they need to learn to bask in the success of others because, on the flip side, their team’s mistakes are now also their own, in many respects.
As a bigger picture solution, you could also consider offering separate progression streams, such as a management pathway and a specialist pathway. This way employees still have an opportunity to progress in the organisation and earn more money but don’t need to step into a management position to get there.
“Not everyone wants to progress down the managerial path,” says Bourmault.
“In our [research] paper, we also talked about engineers or scientists who are not necessarily completely fulfilled in their new managerial jobs because how they view the purpose in their profession isn’t necessarily 100 per cent aligned with what a manager does.
“They’ve also spent years being in the educational system to [get into their field], so their professional values are probably deeply ingrained in them. So it makes sense to offer other career paths … so they can still progress in their careers, and their organisations can retain these very talented people.”
AHRI’s short course, building and developing talent, will equip you with the skills to understand people’s learning styles, among many other things, and help newly promoted employees to thrive.
Quick summary points
If you’ve skipped to the bottom and are wondering ‘what on earth is managerial blues?’, Nishani Bourmault, assistant professor at NEOMA Business School in France, says, “It’s people feeling that their new managerial job is less meaningful than their previous jobs, oftentimes leading them to want to exit their managerial role soon upon arrival.”
Bourmault shares some things to look out for, as well as quick tips to re-engage a newly promoted manager who might be heading down a pathway towards managerial blues.
- Pay attention to how they talk about their jobs. Are they saying things such as “I don’t feel like I make a difference” or “My work doesn’t matter”? If so, it’s time to intervene.
- Don’t assume that everyone will derive purpose from managing people. “You might think it should matter [to them] because people are counting on them,” says Bourmault. But that’s not always the case.
- Was their former position (internally or externally) a high-purpose role? If so, is the role they’re stepping into equally purposeful? If not, try some of the remedies below.
Remedying managerial blues
- Consider tweaking the management role to allow them to retain some of their former high-purpose responsibilities (e.g. a supervisor nurse who sometimes treats patients).
- Coach them to derive purpose in a new way, such as seeing a team member succeed.
- Include elements of independent work in their new role, especially during those initial transition months.
- Offer multiple progression paths – such as managers and specialists – so you don’t end up with people applying for management positions just because they want a pay raise or more prestige. See HRM’s previous article on this topic.
- Even if you don’t consider their former role to be extremely purposeful, it’s worth asking them if they felt it was. After all, I’m sure you think differently about subway drivers after reading this.