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Workarounds For Management Minefields

How to handle three potentially uncomfortable management situations

managment mindfieldsManagement can be challenging under the best of circumstances. But some situations are inherently more uncomfortable than others because of the politics involved. If you’ve ever had to manage or be managed by a former colleague, or had to work for a boss who is younger than you are, then you may have experienced these management minefields firsthand.

“These situations lead to frustration about the fact that you have to deal with them at all, and confusion about what to do,” says Dr. Todd Thomas, associate professor of leadership at the DeVos Graduate School of Management. “All of these situations create fertile ground for acting out,” says Kathi Elster, author of Working for You Isn’t Working for Me. “If you are not familiar with how to handle these situations, then the first time may be uncomfortable, and people have a tendency to do the wrong thing.”

To help ensure that you do the right thing when it comes to addressing these three potential management minefields, career-intelligence polled a wide range of managers, employees, and workplace experts on the subject. Our respondents offered a number of effective workarounds to help you navigate these tricky situations:

Managing a Former Colleague

You once were office peers and perhaps even friends, working shoulder to shoulder at the same level in the company. But then you were promoted while your colleague stayed behind—and on top of that, you became your former peer’s supervisor. While your new direct report may resent you for becoming the boss, you may feel apprehensive about your new role as well, and perhaps even feel guilty.

Address resentment. JP Jones, owner of Paige1Media, can relate to this situation, having managed former colleagues in two previous positions. Several conflicts immediately came to the forefront directly related to her new role. “I found that after my promotion, the real work began,” says Jones. “I had to strive twice as hard to create a peaceful environment, while at the same time enforcing the dictates that were necessary in the workplace.”

The biggest challenge that Jones had to overcome was resentment. “Whether conscious or not, resentment tends to run rampant in these situations, and often will express itself in rebellion against assignments and directives given by the new leader,” says Jones. One of the most effective ways that Jones found to smooth ruffled feathers was through frequent open communication. “I tried to make it apparent that I felt no ‘superiority’ to my former colleagues, but was simply trying to do my job effectively and keep things running smoothly.”

Keep the balance. Being promoted above a peer involves the need to dig into your former peer’s business. Many leaders choose to address their discomfort about this by giving their former peer the reins over a particular area. This can create a lack of personal ownership on the part of the new manager, which can lead to the manager’s own failure unless the results are stellar, explains Bonnie Hagemann, CEO ofExecutive Development Associates. On the flipside, Hagemann has seen situations where new leaders jump in and micromanage their former peer’s area. Either way, everyone loses.

A better way to handle the transition is to ensure sufficient communication leading up to, during, and after the changes. Hagemann suggests that everyone impacted by the decisions receive an opportunity to state their feelings about the situation.  “Just being heard is one step toward moving forward,” says Hagemann.

Career coach Alan Allard agrees that discussing the “elephant in the room” can help ease the transition. “Talk with your former colleagues privately and express your respect for them,” says Allard. “Stay positive and express your belief that you can work together effectively in a way that benefits everyone.”

Learn from your new team. Mary Hladio, founder of the organizational performance firm Ember Carriers Research Group, suggests taking time in the first 30 days after your promotion to meet individually with each of your new team members, including former colleagues. During this meeting, Hladio recommends asking the following questions, and learning from them:

  • What do they think could be done differently or better in the department?
  • Do they see any opportunities that are being missed?
  • What are their concerns about how the team is run?

“Don’t take on the position with guns a blazing,” says Hladio. “Your team is there to help you, and if you can work though the transition with compassion, you will have a team that will support your efforts.”

Being Managed by a Former Colleague

When you’re promoted to manage a former peer, you have the advantage of having received a bump up the ladder to help ease the discomfort of the new reporting structure and its effect on office relationships. But when you’re the one who stays in place while your colleague is promoted above you, it can bring up a different set of challenges.

Deal with ego issues. While managing a former peer involves addressing your peer’s possible resentment that you’ve received something that he or she didn’t, being managed by a former peer means you need to keep your own ego in check. Allard says one of the main challenges of being in this position is fighting the feeling of “I should have been the one promoted, not him.”

When a peer becomes your supervisor, you may experience a loss of confidence or self-worth because you didn’t get the promotion. Pull yourself together and adjust your attitude, suggests career coach Roy Cohen, author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “At some point if you’ve made it through the rounds of cuts, you will be working for someone who was a peer or a subordinate,” says Cohen. “There’s no room for an attitude or you will feel the pain in your end of year bonus.”

Set expectations. Executive and career management coach Lisa Chenofsky Singer suggests taking time to understand the role you now play in the larger team, and figuring out where your contribution can make a difference. “Speak with your new boss to understand what the boss wants, needs, and believes is the best strategy to achieve it,” says Chenofsky Singer. “Feel free to offer input, but make sure the boss is ready to receive it. You don’t want to sound like ‘this is how we always did it’ rather than presenting options for the future.”

Hladio adds that if your new manager does not schedule a meeting with you early on, you should be proactive and ask for one to align expectations and get your manager’s view on how work will get done. “It is important if your former colleague is now your boss that you don’t undermine the position or abuse the ‘friendship’ you had,” says Hladio. “Show the leadership that you can deal with the change and help the transition instead of hindering it.”

Don’t borrow trouble. Fear of potential management minefields is often greater than reality, according to Bettina Seidman, president of SEIDBET Associates. Seidman gives an example of a client who was concerned that being managed by a former colleague would lead to unfair treatment because she and the promoted manager had competed for the position.

To avoid worrying about something that may never happen, Seidman suggests that in a new management situation, you should avoid catastrophizing, or assuming the worst possible outcome. “Don’t focus on fearful expectations,” says Seidman. “Wait and see what the reality is. In general, most of these ‘unusual’ work situations work themselves out.”

Being Managed by Someone Younger than You

Just as resentment and ego issues can arise when being managed by a former colleague, so too can they emerge when the management configuration involves a younger boss. Most of those polled on the subject cited respect as the core issue to deal with when your manager is younger than you.

Give respect. “Even if you know more than your younger boss, it is up to you to be respectful to your boss’s needs the same way you would if your boss were older than you,” says Elster. Allard agrees. “Age and experience do not translate into less competency, wisdom, or judgment,” says Allard. “There are some 30-year-olds that are more competent and possess greater judgment than some 50-year-olds.” Allard suggests that those working with younger managers adopt the mindset of focusing on what’s right with their new boss, not what’s wrong, and on what their new boss has to offer, not on age.

Help your boss get the job done. The most tangible way that you can show respect to your younger boss is to roll up your sleeves and get to work. “The person reporting to the younger boss needs to take the high road in order to be successful,” says Hagemann. She suggests diving quickly into your new role, helping your younger manager understand the work, and sharing any barriers to success that you’ve noticed, so that the new manager can help move out of the way. “Try to find common ground and don’t stop trying on the days when moving forward is difficult,” says Hagemann.

Stay confident. Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs.com, knows firsthand what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence. Fell managed people much older than her for her entire career, starting when she co-founded her first company at age 21, which grew to over 100 employees. “It was occasionally difficult to have confidence in my experience, knowing that some people were considered ‘seasoned professionals,’ whereas I was not,” Fell recalls. “Similarly, some people I managed were definitely not enthralled with having to report to someone much younger than they were.”

Fell described how some wanted to challenge her every move to try to show they were smarter, better, or more qualified than she was. “It was important to not get sucked into the drama, and simply focus on getting my job done as professionally and capably as I could,” says Fell.

Fell suggests that younger managers remember that they—and not their detractors—were hired for the position, and most likely for good reason. In Fell’s case, she learned that several of those reporting to her had wanted the job and not gotten it, which was behind their resentment. “You won’t necessarily be able to convince everyone that you’re the best person for the job,” admits Fell. “But by setting a standard of professionalism and teamwork, hopefully they’ll back off and maybe even become your ally.”

Also, young managers should be aware that the shoe might be on the other foot someday. Claire F. Kuhl, owner of V&R Consulting, reports that such a flip happened to her personally: “When I was 30, my first direct report was 65,” says Kuhl. “Learning to see our situation from his perspective stood me in good stead later when, at age 53, I reported to a 35-year-old who was also a former colleague.”

About Robin Madell

Robin Madell has spent over two decades as a corporate writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, health, finance, technology, and public-interest issues. She is a contributing writer to U.S. News & World Report and serves as a copywriter, speechwriter, and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association in New York and San Francisco. Robin is the author of Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30 and co-author of The Strong Principles: Career Success.


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