Music to read to:
Manager – employee relationship is crucial to our well-being at the workplace. After all, we have all heard the saying, “Employees do not leave companies, they leave managers.” And while I think this statement is quite exaggerated and simplistic, there is no doubt that our managers have significant influence over our experiences at work.
McKinsey’s “The Boss Factor: Making the World a Better Place Through Workplace Relationships” is one of the best articles about people management I have read recently. Among all its insights and observations, it reveals the great effect managers have on our job satisfaction. According to the data shared in the article, interpersonal relationships, the most impactful of which is the manager relationship, account for 39% of job satisfaction. In turn, job satisfaction is the second most important driver of life satisfaction and significantly influences various aspects of job performance. So it is not surprising that one of the most stressful things that can happen to us at work is for our manager to change.
I, myself, have experienced manager change in all its possible scenarios. Over the past four years, my managers have changed nine times (I hope this one sticks around because I am tired). I have also been the new manager in multiple diverse situations – to brand new teams, to my former peers whom all of a sudden had to report to me, to teams and individuals who have moved under me due to organizational restructuring. I have also had my direct reports move under new management. And in all those situations, no matter the specifics of the change, there were similarities in the experiences and emotions that arise.
Fears, Fears Everywhere
On the one hand, there may be fears and uncertainties related to the reasons for the change. Some of the switches in management I have seen were related to organizational restructuring or underperformance of the previous manager. In those cases, no matter how transparent the organization tries to be, there are always some aspects of the case which are left for interpretation. And this little voice in our head that whispers, “If it happened to them, it might happen to me.”
And then there are all the fears related to the new manager. Those can vary greatly depending on the individual and their career stage. My biggest fear for a long time now has been, “Will they micromanage me?” But I have, for example, a colleague for whom I was the first remote manager. We also work on entirely different time zones, so her main concern when I became her manager was: “Will you be there as much as I need you to?”
And there are many more – “Will they appreciate me as my previous manager did?”, “Will they have the knowledge and expertise to provide me guidance?”, “Will they have the backbone to stand up for our team?”, “What will they want to change in our work?” and on and on.
I have found that I have fared best with managers who were cognizant of the potential fears and insecurities and tried to address most of them upfront and with employees who openly shared their specific uncertainties, which I have not managed to gauge.
And It’s Sad
The relationship with the previous manager does not need to have been perfect for the employee to experience feelings of loss and grief. Someone who has had a significant influence on you and your work is leaving, and it is sad. Even if your relationship was strained, you have still shared a lot of moments together – successes, failures, laughs and cries.
As the new manager, I have sometimes found this grief threatening (that little voice again, “If they are so sad about him/her leaving, will they ever accept me?”). At the same time, I often have the urge to try to help with managing the grief.
I discovered it is best to squash both of those emotions down for one and the same reason – it has nothing to do with me. My help in these situations would be more of an intrusion. And if we acknowledge the need for a grieving period and provide space for it, the sense of loss for their previous boss will not interfere with our employees accepting us. In the end, some of the most productive and strongest relationships I have built have been with colleagues whose grief for their previous managers was the deepest.
To Compare Is To Despair
Comparisons between the current and previous supervisor are inevitable, but I have found them rather unproductive. After all, even if my assessment shows that my last boss was much better, what can I do about it?
Instead, I try to focus on learning about my new manager, adapting to them and building this new relationship.
Lots To Learn
What Is Our New Language?
When we get a new manager, the language changes. In the global corporate world, this sometimes is a literal change in language. I have not had a boss who speaks my native tongue for four and a half years now. And while my English is relatively good, it took me a while to start feeling confident that I can express myself fully and accurately (especially since all my managers in that period have been native English speakers).
But even more critical is the figurative change in language. Every team has its own discourse, which reflects the shared values, goals and culture, and the team’s narrative is greatly influenced and often owned by the leadership.
Therefore, when I get a new manager, one of the first things I try to find out is the key words around which our conversations will revolve.
What Makes Them Tick?
Our new manager will hopefully present us with their goals and clarify their expectations for our performance. But below those explicit priorities, there is an underlying layer of drivers that we also need to find out. Some of my managers put the greatest value on data and numbers; for others, their reputation and how what we do is perceived by others was the most important; my current manager focuses on cooperation and getting the job done (that works best for me).
No matter what this foundational driver is, knowing about it allows us to adapt our behaviors and informs how we structure our communication to our leaders.
What Is Their Management Style?
I had a truly disastrous relationship with one of my previous managers. And by disastrous, I mean that because of it, I left my job and moved to another HR function (which incidentally turned out to be the best career decision I have ever made, so I have a lot to thank her for). I am sure that I have contributed to the relationship’s failure, and she probably can share many reasons why it did not work for her. But for me, it all boiled down to her inconsistent management style. One day she was very much in the weeds and needed to be included in every minute operational interaction. The next, she completely pulled away and was not there for me when I needed support in making significant and important decisions. I tried to have conversations around this and to request more consistency, but they came to no fruition. In the end, I could not handle the frustration and constantly feeling like a failure and left.
Since then, every time I have a new manager, I make sure I ask: “How much do you want to be involved in the details?”, “How much say do I have in the decisions made for my work and my team?”, “How much independence do I have to implement changes?” “What support can I expect from you?”
How Do They Handle Failure and Frustration?
Despite how great we may be at our job, we inevitably fail sometimes. And as leaders, we are accountable not only for our own mistakes but also for the ones our teams make. We also need to shield them as much as possible from the frustrations of poor relationships with stakeholders or organizational decisions that may affect them adversely.
I have seen and had managers who are so insecure or worried about their own reputation that they are swift to find someone to shift responsibility. There are others who acknowledge the mistake, own it and rally the troops to fix it and move on (I do try to be one of these). For some, their personal fear of failure is so crippling that it paralyzes them and limits their ability to make decisions for a while (unfortunately, I am sometimes one of those).
Finding out how our new leader handles such situations early in the game will help us avoid unpleasant surprises later.
Foundations To Build
It was very liberating for me when I realized that I don’t need to like my manager for us to work well together. Even better, they don’t need to necessarily like me to have a fruitful relationship. It just has to be something that works for both sides and brings the work results we pursue.
Over time, my expectations towards the relationship with my manager have changed considerably. Recently I had to do a survey about my manager, and one of the questions was, “Does my manager care about me as a person?”. With a certain modicum of surprise, I recognized that this is no longer important for me, although it used to be crucial until a few years ago and is still fundamental for some of my direct reports.
I used to look for a manager who can help me learn and grow professionally. At the moment, the nature of my job is such that it provides me daily learning opportunities, so I don’t need my manager to do much in that direction. What I need from them is to support me in making things happen.
As a manager, I make it a point to have regular talks about my reports’ expectations of me. I also try to look for any implicit expectations and adapt to them too. And since relationships are built on reciprocity, I make sure I am clear about my expectations from them as well.
But In The End Manager Change Is Not So Bad
Change in management may be a stressful experience that brings out a lot of emotions and requires some actions on our end to ensure we build a strong foundation for our future relationship. But there are some positives about it, too – I can confidently say that I have learned something from each of the nine leaders I have had in the past four years, and that is priceless after all.