I'm a new manager, and I suck at it
December 24, 2021 3:01 PM   Subscribe

I've been a manager for half a year and I'm still struggling at it. Any advice? I came into a complicated workplace. It's slowly getting better, but I don't think that I've been a good manager. What can I do to improve? (I have difficulties trusting a particular employee).

I'm a new manager in a non-profit-ish field. The previous manager left the organization in a very bad state. I report to a volunteer-based governing board, not to a direct manager.

I would say that I'm probably guilty of A LOT of the mistakes listed here by new managers on AskAManager.

I manage a small team of 2 people (3 people when we have a summer student). One is a recent hire, one has been there for over a decade. I think it's been difficult with the staff member who has been there for 10+ years. She was the interim manager between the previous manager and me. The board really wanted her to apply, but she wasn't "interested" in the role until it was too late and they had already hired me. She was very rude to me for the first four months, at least. Blaming me for a TON of issues that *she* directly caused while she was interim manager. We had a "heart-to-heart" discussion a few months ago and she has been much better. However, I have a difficult time trusting her as an employee, based on the way she treated me for the first few months. It's like she was determined to hate/be difficult with any manager who would have came into the organization. Ultimately, deep down, I feel like I can't trust her based on those four months. I sound petty and paranoid, I get it. I know this is more of a personal feeling, but I can't forget that treatment.

The board is very supportive of me, but... sometimes I feel lost. I'm not sure if what I'm doing is what they want, I get the impression that they really don't care about the organization unless there's an emergency. So, I don't know how well I'm really doing with them. I feel like I'm working for an empty void. Much of what the previous manager did, wouldn't have happened if the board had been doing their job.

I've been reading up on difficulties new managers face and another thing I'm struggling with is that I don't get to do the WORK I like anymore. I think because I distrust that one employee, in particular, and I miss the hands on work of my field I have started to become a micromanager. *screams*

I need to step back and stop this behavior, because I know it's only going to create a bad work environment. How do I a) start to trust that employee? b) stop being a micromanager and c) just become a stronger manager.

I have so many doubts about myself and my career. In so many ways this position is good for my career and could lead to some great roles that *aren't* managerial, but unfortunately, I really need to get the experience and there aren't a lot of other positions in my field available at the moment.

I don't have many people to reach out to for mentorship/advice, but I have a few. I haven't found all of their advice to be very helpful, unfortunately. It's almost like they've been managers for SO LONG that they don't understand the issues I am struggling with. I'm embarrassed that I haven't figured it out in 6 months. I'm really struggling and feeling like I just don't have the capability to become a decent manager, forget about great or good. I have the next week and a half off on vacation, but I've just spent the past few days in an anxiety spiral about how AWFUL I am as a manager and how terrible my staff probably thinks I am. I do see a therapist and our next appointment is early next week.

Radical Candor is a book that has been recommended to me by colleagues, but what else should I be doing? What else should I be reading? I seriously feel like I truly suck as a manager.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You probably don't suck at it. Be careful some "charities" are on the take. Start looking for a new job, while learning all you can from this one.
posted by Oyéah at 3:28 PM on December 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

How do I a) start to trust that employee?

I think you have to be willing to give her a little bit of a clean slate. If you really can't, it would be better to fire her.

Trust is not (just) an emotion but an action. Give her opportunities to do things well. Leave things up to her good judgement. Give her a chance to prove herself. It doesn't have to be anything really mission-critical or high stakes, but... if you feel a little nervous, that's a good thing. I don't think I'm a great manager but I've learned this much: you have to be willing to let go of a lot of things even when you know you could do a better job by doing it yourself.

Does your employee have a path for advancement or professional development? That could help if she's frustrated with not having moved up to a permanent management position.

I suspect that we're in the same field and I'm also a newish manager of a very small staff. Please feel free to MeMail me if you think it might help!
posted by Jeanne at 4:01 PM on December 24, 2021 [6 favorites]

Brene Brown works now on leadership. Her Dare to Lead research and application offers some transformative approaches that you might find useful.
posted by Thella at 4:35 PM on December 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

You sound unsure of your organization's direction. You might try doing some of the things people do when starting a business. Write a business plan. Write a mission statement. Take them to the board and invite additions and changes. Evaluate the business in terms of the objectives you have defined. It might all sound hokey, and maybe it is, but it creates an opportunity for change and clearing out deadwood.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:31 PM on December 24, 2021 [8 favorites]

re: trusting your coworker

focus less on how the work gets done, and more on the parts of the outcome that are important. As long as whatever they do satisfies criteria XYZ, it's acceptable. This puts some burden on you to define XYZ, but that's part of delegating well and it'll be critical for you in the long run if you start taking on more scope/authority. If their work doesn't meet criteria that are important to the organization, deal with that as a performance/coaching issue. If they accomplish XYZ but in a way that doesn't seem "right", figure out whether there's actually something important that you didn't include in their directions. Maybe it'll be something for you to keep in mind as you set goals for them, maybe it's something you'd expect a person at their level of responsibility to get right and it's a sign they're not meeting the company's expectations for someone in their role, maybe it's an opportunity to coach them towards thinking about some bigger picture...to some degree you'll need to use your judgement about how to proceed.

But make sure you're not just unhappy because they're not meeting targets that only exist in your head, or because they're getting the right results but not in the way you would. (Not meant as criticism, this is all very common even for more senior managers.)
posted by ethand at 6:33 PM on December 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

2nding everything semisalt said. You’re out being given direction by the board and that means you haven’t got enough reference points for what you’re meant to be doing or where you’re trying to get to. So you have to come up with your own plan. But it is crucial that the board sign off on it before you implement it.

So spend time thinking about the organisation’s stakeholders and objectives and about concrete medium and short term steps to further these. That will then give you a framework for you wider decision making and goals against which to track your performance and claim recognition from the board.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:57 PM on December 24, 2021

I think you have to be willing to give her a little bit of a clean slate. If you really can't, it would be better to fire her. As long as she is meeting performance standards, this is immoral and depending on your jurisdiction, possibly illegal. I completely disagree with and urge you not to follow this advice.

In order:

- your problem employee has improved after your talk. Good! Not only is that good in its own right, you should feel good about having had an honest interaction that caused this. That's good managing! Take heart from this and reflect on how well you handled it.

- keep the momentum by continuing to check in with problem child, but also with their colleague, regularly. Even if there is nothing going on that needs addressing, regular one on ones build your relationship to make it stronger and make it safe to disclose more difficult topics.

- agree with the suggestions to make your own plan and get board buy in. Ultimately, your org must have goals, and if the board can't give you the strategy, you will have to come up with it.

- as my people say, you don't own a dog and bark yourself. But... with a team of two, maybe it does make sense for you to do some things as they need doing? Preferably more menial, unrewarding things that your team will recognise as you keeping the decks clear and doing your share of crappy tasks. That's leadership 101. Having said that: giving people a little room to fuck up is how they learn and develop. It's ok for people to half arse non-critical stuff and do it different from how you would do it. The development part is when you discuss it at your regular catchup and talk about how it could go next time.

Honestly, the self-doubt is not a bad sign. You care about being good and you're humble. Advice above notwithstanding, cut yourself some slack. Nobody is great at this out of the gate.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:55 PM on December 24, 2021 [5 favorites]

(I realise I wasn't 100% clear here on my first point. It's the firing I find immoral etc, not the clean slate part, which is good.)
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:59 PM on December 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Being a manager is often NOT what it cracked up to be. Why did James T. Kirk gladly took a demotion from Admiral back to Captain? He got tired of helming a desk. Managing people often means you do NOT do the actual WORK, but supervise others to do the work you used to do. If you were hired as a manager, whoever hired you has trust in you to do the job, but ultimately, do you feel a lot less satisfied in this job vs as a non-manager? And how badly do you want it vs growth as a manager?

My managerial advice is pretty minimal. Praise in public, chastise in private.

As for your "potentially problematic employee", you don't need to trust her. You just need her to perform her job. As long as she does her job, there's no need to "take precautions". That just adds additional stress on you for little gain.

Personally, I'd go more of a honey approach. More praise in public, designate her as second in command, if you cannot be reached. If she makes a decision that's not what you would have done, can you understand what she was going for, and is it that much worse? (Then go back to praise in public, chastise in private) This may mollify her to some extent. Sounds like you've at least reached detente. Now you can go for phase II and establish more rapport.
posted by kschang at 8:52 PM on December 24, 2021

Your employee currently has a manager who isn’t a confident manager and who hasn’t invested much time or focus into honing their management skills. Their mistrust is understandable but it can be overcome.
Management is a whole new discipline you’ll need to learn. As a start, I like Resilient Management by Lara Hogan, a very short book that was primarily written for software team managers but works well in a nonprofit context.
You sound like a caring person who wants to lead well. It’s worth investing the time to learn how to do it well.
posted by third word on a random page at 12:36 AM on December 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think you need to distance yourself from work a bit more - eg you talk about "trust", personal feelings, the feeling of paranoia. Managers are expected to be impartial and fair, and I believe a certain level of professional distance is necessary - that's the psychosocial training that is quite often lacking in this field.

I see work like a machine, and you're all cogs and moving parts in it, both the manager and employee being managed. There's no such thing as trust, any more than an engineer "trusts" the components on an airplane to keep it aloft. There are defined processes and rules, and if you follow them, you've covered your ass even if something goes wrong. And things always go wrong, eventually.

So I'm sure this sounds incredible basic... but generally you should be aware of what is expected of a regular employee of that grade, and then coach them into setting performance expectations for themselves - we usually get the employee to determine the level of performance and quality they want to strive for. Obviously, if the benchmark comes from above, an employee will have difficulty saying no, even if they have no ability or intention to meet it.

So, let them set those performance parameters then do regular check ins - offer praise if they're meeting them, or counseling if they're not. Some employees will aim high, and some will aim low, depending on how ambitious they are - some are aiming to do the bare minimum and leave at 4:30. Some organizations may be totally fine with that.

I've had situations where an employee could have been seen to "betray" my trust, say by petitioning me for an exemption to work from home and then abusing it by literally not doing anything for several weeks. Another one charged me hours on his timesheet that he never worked - I noted his arrival and leaving times in the office, he'd sneakily charge me an extra hour per day thinking I wouldn't notice. But I'd treat that no different to a bracket that failed on a machine that needed replacing, and luckily I caught the failure in time. Stuff happens. Humans are fallible. I'm grateful that my processes allow me to catch these failures, rather than feeling down that my trust was betrayed. Your own mental health has to be your first priority, and then you can take care of your team.

Which is not to say I treat my employees as non-human cabbages or something. Although, a cabbage isn't a bad analogy. If the cabbage didn't grow well it's usually the fault of the gardener, not the cabbage, and from the point of view of the gardener, it's probably something they can fix - fertilizer, etc, or maybe it was never fixable to begin with, like it was the wrong kind of cabbage for this soil, in either case, it's not a case of betrayal. Of all the managers I've observed I spend the most personal non-work time with my employees, taking them to lunch, meeting with them outside of work, and developing those personal friendships, but work remains strictly work. I'm happy to tell them (and I've done it in at least two cases), that the performance you are putting in isn't compatible with what the company expects and I recommend they start looking for a new job, but if I say that with perfect honesty and with sufficient documentation - these expectations come not from me but from the organization we both work for who has benchmarked hundreds of employees in similar roles - then I see no issue with me being the bearer of bad news. In fact, I would be remiss in my duties if I delayed bringing this to their attention.
posted by xdvesper at 12:50 AM on December 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

a) start to trust that employee? You have no reason to trust an employee who intentionally sabotaged you. You don't display that overtly, you're cordial, but I'd be cautious. Listen more to their actions than words, a lot more. Reward good work and effective behavior. This is not so easy, but it's what works. reward = 'I liked that announcement you did for the Whatsit event.' and 'I've noticed you're keeping good documentation on the Thing1 project; that's so useful. Allow them to earn your trust, but don't be hasty.

b) stop being a micromanager Define the result/ objective/ product you want. Be clear about what you want, what the organizations needs. Consciously let go of some monitoring. Accept that some things will turn out not as you want them, but assess to see if they're actually meeting the objective. There will be some failures, that's how stuff works. You have to be confident that errors can be resolved, that things can be fixed. You have to know how critical a project is, and monitor accordingly. It's hard because it takes confidence.

and c) just become a stronger manager. You're caught in the day-to-day. Spend some time, maybe even daily, strategizing and thinking about the long term goals. The day-to-day stuff is easier when you have a solid goal to work towards. The staff and the board want you to tell them how things are, and how they should be. If you're spending more time on the long term goals, you'll have less time to be distracted by the micro- stuff. People want some direction from managers, that includes the board. I recommend taking classes in managing for non-profits, and joining any professional organizations. The connections are useful, as well as learning from peers.
posted by theora55 at 6:13 AM on December 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

Reading the Ask a Manager advice column has definitely helped me think about how to be a better manager, and sometimes it is pretty entertaining, to boot.
posted by grouse at 9:56 AM on December 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

I've been reading up on difficulties new managers face and another thing I'm struggling with is that I don't get to do the WORK I like anymore.

You’re the manager and you appear to have a lot of leeway on what exactly that means. You picking up strictly delimited hands-on tasks sounds like it might work out for everyone. Especially if it stops you from trying to do the work by proxy through micromanaging.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:10 PM on December 26, 2021

Hi anon - please send me a DM if you're comfortable doing so.

I do a lot of reading, thinking, and operationalizing on how to go from contributor to manager. I've successfully become a great manager myself (according to my directs and peers) in the last 3 years... and I never wanted to be a manager in the first place. I'm in the nonprofit world and have led teams of 3 to now 7. I also manage a manager and have been coaching /supporting them on management as it's own skill (a whole set of skills really).

Unfortunately almost all managers get thrown into this world with no support or training. We're often promoted into management because we're strong contributors without recognition that management is a completely different skill set. Just because we're great at doing doesn't automatically mean we're great at helping others do!

All this to say, if it feels hard it's because it is. At the core of all good management (and the theme that ties all recommended reading - Brene Brown, Lara Hogan, Kim Scott) is building and maintaining trust between you and your directs. This is earned and goes both ways - its not just you trusting your directs but also (and I'd argue more importantly) earning trust FROM your directs. My hunch is you don't trust your direct.. and that they don't trust you. And therein lies the root of (one!) challenge - how to not micromanage and how to have a better working relationship with one of your directs.

And doing this is super hard because building and maintaining trust in the workplace is fundamentally about building relationships between humans to achieve shared goals. This is messy and complicated because it taps into so many things including becoming good at communicating, listening, developing strong self awareness, letting go of perfectionism, and setting and maintaining clear boundaries and goals.

The great news is that no one is born a great manager - it's all a learned set of skills. The main prerequisite is caring which, from your question, I can tell that you do.
posted by kitkatcathy at 3:35 AM on December 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

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