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The First-Time Manager: Four Tough Calls

More than 40% of new managers feel unprepared for the role, making it difficult for them to address these four common issues. Second in a series.

Jim didn’t know what to do. He had just joined a new investment firm, and for the first time he had direct reports—two of whom continued to ignore his guidance and conduct business as usual. Should he change his tactics? Express his concerns another way? Fire them?

Jim, whose name has been changed for privacy purposes, faced a common problem for new managers: when you’re in a new position that requires you to reprimand someone, it’s natural to hesitate to confront such issues. After all, 44% of new managers feel unprepared for the role, and 87% wish they had more training for the job, according to a survey by learning platform Grovo. With one’s management style still in formation, it’s no wonder that there are lots of questions about how to attack tricky scenarios.

The worst thing you can do as a new manager is blindside an employee when you become concerned about their performance.

What’s more, many of the people who get promoted to manager are rising stars of their department. But being an ace chemical engineer has no bearing on whether you’ll be a good manager of chemical engineers. That’s because so much of good management comes down to the soft skills—emotional intelligence, communication, and delegating, to name a few—instead of hard skills. “What made you successful up to this point won’t necessarily make you successful as a manager,” says Josh Daniel, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

Below are some tips on how to deal with four of the most uncomfortable situations you’ll likely find yourself in as a new boss.

Managing a former peer.

It doesn’t get much more awkward than giving orders to your former lunch mate—particularly because you’ll need to also manage the concern that you may favor certain coworkers over others. The key to starting to deal with this situation is to accept that some of your reports most likely will have hesitations about you in this role. You can work around this by making your expectations as clear as possible and in ways that are quantifiable. By doing this, you’re allowing numbers and performance to talk instead of any biases. Some experts also say it’s best to address the awkwardness outright, acknowledging to your team that you’re new to management and understand that only a short time ago you were in their shoes. The key is to be authentic but firm about what you expect of your team.

Addressing underperformance.

The worst thing you can do as a new manager is blindside an employee when you become concerned about their performance. One of the best ways to avoid this is by consistently checking in with your direct reports and talking to them about what’s working and what isn’t. Doing this will give you a chance to see where any underperformance may be coming from and provide a chance to fix the issue before it becomes a greater concern. An open communication tactic also provides cover to you: an employee can’t feign surprise if you find you have to move to a more official tactic to change the underperformance.

When discussing things that aren’t working, it’s good to use the compliment sandwich: begin by telling your direct report something he or she is doing well, then put your concern or the issue in the middle, and end the conversation back on a high note. People are much more responsive to such feedback because it doesn’t immediately place them on the defensive.

Mollifying an angry subordinate.

Try as you might to keep your team in alignment, there will come a day when you really tick off one of your employees. When you do so, it can act as a “gravitational pull” among your team, uniting them against you, Daniel says. The urge for new managers is to ignore the anger, and hope that it will dissipate over time. But if you don’t address the issue, it actually will continue to fester.

First, give your employee (and perhaps you, if the issue has ticked you off as well) some space to cool down. Then, discuss the issue at a later time and use a calm demeanor as an anchor to their anger, especially if they’re toeing the line of unprofessionalism. Most importantly, remove the focus from you versus them by providing context around the decision. Oftentimes, providing an explanation and more information regarding an issue or point of view can abate the anger.

Firing someone.

One of the biggest changes that people forget when they become a manager is that your commitments change, Daniel says. You’re now obligated to the company first and your team second—meaning that underperformance, at the end of the day, comes back on you, not your direct reports. It’s the addition by subtraction theory: sometimes to move forward, we must let things (and people) go.

When firing someone, the key is to be respectful and direct. One of the worst things you can do is beat around the bush—calling a subordinate into your office and chitchatting about your weekend before delivering the bad news. Instead, keep the discussion to specifics that didn’t work for the organization, and avoid statements that may define who the individual is. One way to do this is by using “we” phrases as opposed to “I” statements. The subtle shift reminds the person you’re speaking about the broader organization instead of yourself.

Up next: How to avoid getting fired in your new role.

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