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The First-Time Manager: Finding Your Style Under a Shadow

Newly minted bosses want to shake things up. But they may end up rattling their higher-ups instead. First in a series.

Anyone who has made the leap to a management position knows the transition can be rough. You’ve gone from being a person who takes orders to the one who is giving orders, or at least some of them. You may be in charge of former colleagues, creating awkward relationships and feelings of resentment. Most importantly, you soon discover that while you now have more authority, you don’t have total authority: many first-timer managers fall into the middle echelons where they still have to report to a supervisor—and that person’s views on what it takes to run a team might be very different from your own.

While many of these tensions have been around for decades, the generational differences in today’s workplaces are exacerbating the conflicts. The average age when people become managers for the first time is 30, meaning many millennials are entering these roles now. At the same time, baby boomers are staying in the workforce longer than their predecessors did, giving both generations (as well as Generation X and Generation Z, who are also in the mix) plenty of overlap as they navigate an increasingly fast-paced, competitive business landscape. Old-school executives may have notions of how a new manager should act and operate, while the new manager may want to try a different approach to rallying his or her team.

The average age when people become managers for the first time is 30, meaning many millennials are entering these roles now.

If you’re a first-time manager looking to cultivate your own style, here’s some advice on how to do so while bringing your team and higher-ups along with you.

Put yourself in discovery mode.

It’s easy to get frustrated with how systems are currently run—particularly if they’ve been in place for a while and no longer seem to be working well. But for any new manager, it’s worth looking at the situation as a whole. There may be a reason your boss wants constant updates on a certain project, or asks that you use a tedious method of inputting your vacation days. Observe and have conversations with your manager and your team about opportunities and challenges. The more perspective you gain, the more you will discover which battles you actually need to fight. “Chances are your manager is getting pressure from someone else,” says Daisy Swan, a career coach based in Los Angeles. “Try to be aware of what your manager is going through that’s coming down on you.” Doing so will also help you figure out the best way to keep your direct reports in the loop and motivated.

Get people to buy in by tying your decisions to company priorities.

New managers often want to challenge the status quo, but easily forget that most people struggle with change. To try and get your team or your boss on board with a new idea, show how the change aligns with the organization’s key priorities. For example, if there’s a report that your boss asks your team to produce every week, and you know it’s time-consuming and wasteful, don’t say “this is a waste” or ignore the request. Instead, show how gathering the same information in another way can save the team time or money. The key is to take a collaborative, respectful approach that focuses on results. “If you can meet someone in a way that doesn’t make them feel old, stupid, or no longer hip, most people are willing to try,” says Sean Carney, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

Recognize that personality—and performance—are at play.

You may not love your boss’s hierarchical, authoritarian way of managing, but is your totally opposite laissez-faire approach going to get you results? Experts say it’s important to be true to your own personality, experiences, and skills while also considering what will best motivate and mobilize the team you’re managing. Being passive-aggressive or dismissive aren’t productive in most scenarios, and being too friendly can make you come across as less professional, but there may be a need to be authoritarian in some situations and more casual in others. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution: the best managers can employ a variety of approaches based on the needs of their individual team members and the culture of the organization.

Be open to critical feedback.

Like it or not, your management style will be shaped by the mistakes you make. When you find that you’re on the receiving end of critical feedback, be sure to really listen. “Feedback is so important to be able to improve,” Swan says. “Letting your boss know that you are digesting it and working through how you’re going to respond is also really important.”

If you disagree with the feedback, be respectful in your defense, and recognize that your boss may still ask you to realign with his or her thinking. “I think it’s OK to explain why you’re doing something in a different way, though you still might be told to do it differently,” Carney says.

Up next: Navigating your way through four tough calls as a new manager.

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