We have met the boss, and he is us
September 18, 2022 11:23 PM   Subscribe

I've recently received a promotion. Yay! I'm looking for some general advice about how to make a successful psychological transition from "person who is subject to the rules" to "person who bears some responsibility for the rules." The kinds of transitions I have in mind: moving from labor into management in the same workplace, becoming an officer in your professional society, getting elected to city government. I'm looking for personal stories, sanitized as much as necessary for this forum, and also for reading recommendations. Difficulty level: member of an underrepresented group, looking for ways to carry my stories (we all have them) into the room with me, without letting them get in the way of promoting positive change.

Throwaway email, in case someone wants to respond less publicly: mefi.transitions at gmail dot com.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Develop a relationship with your new boss that goes beyond solving problems. Find a time of day when the boss is available without an appointment and go regularly to just talk. Your relationship will serve you both later when there are problems to solve.

Listen to your staff.

Sometimes, the best decision is to not make one, leave the decision to responsible staff to make.
posted by tmdonahue at 5:06 AM on September 19

You may finding reading the advice column

Ask A Manager helpful.

She writes about how to treat staff well so that you retain them, and also about how to address problems early & diplomatically.

posted by carriage pulled by cassowaries at 6:02 AM on September 19 [3 favorites]

A couple reading suggestions that describe this type of transition in a different context than you’ve listed are in the visible beginning of this article. (Link to request the full article.)
posted by eviemath at 6:31 AM on September 19

I would note that becoming an officer in your professional society gives one a little bit more power to set priorities, but not power over other people (aside from maybe a very small staff), and mostly more work and responsibility; but also more visibility (which can be quite helpful just on its own to other members of your underrepresented group), and generally the flexibility or ability to make positive structural changes. This is quite different from moving from labor to management, where you gain power over other people, generally within a context where the personal incentives or potential disciplinary actions (eg. getting fired from the management position) that will apply to you strongly align with ensuring that you help maintain the current order under which your group is underrepresented.

Getting elected to city government can range anywhere between those two extremes, but folks I know who have won local elected office have struggled to make change when they were there all on their own, not alongside a slate of similarly-minded representatives. Local governments can also have a lot of rules that limit the power of any given set of elected officials to do things radically differently from the norm, eg. rules around what they are supposed to consider and not consider when making purchasing decisions/accepting bids (consider cost, not consider labor standards or equity in hiring/contracting, for example), rules around getting input from staff and how much they can ignore staff recommendations (maybe incurring personal legal liability if doing something like defunding police against staff recommendations, for example), etc.

On the management end of things, the most common pitfall I’ve seen in people making such a transition is trying to avoid being a manager/trying to maintain the same old social relationships without change, and thereby not providing consistent structure so that people know what to expect. Getting employee input in setting reasonable, fair expectations is good, but it is then your job as a manager to ensure consistency and fairness in enforcing any requirements or expectations. The second most common pitfall I’ve seen is becoming over-zealous in enforcing rules, though (which is surprisingly easy to do when enforcing rules is not something you particularly want to be doing in the first place - which makes that a stressful part of the managerial job, which makes most people grumpy and diminishes their creative problem-solving abilities related to the stressful situation).
posted by eviemath at 6:54 AM on September 19

A lot depends on your workplace. The aforementioned Alison Green's book on managing in a non-profit, Managing to Change The World, isn't bad. But some things to think through are:

1. The difference between doing your work and overseeing whether work is done is a big one. If you still have production/direct service/etc. work, balancing the two is a challenge. You want to think about how you will manage and communicate expectations and how you will measure results (and how you will monitor/check in/support along the way.) Be careful of who's got the monkey.

2. Developing your team is important, both individually and as a team. Identify training needs and career pathways for people. Where are gaps and how to fill them.

3. Communication. Huge.

4. Time is different as a manager, both your own and protecting others'. Maker's schedule vs. Manager's schedule.

5. What kind of a manager do you want to be?
posted by warriorqueen at 7:28 AM on September 19 [4 favorites]

P.S. Good managers adapt, so a lot of advice won't apply. I managed a medium-large editorial team with reasonable success after getting promoted and receiving zero training. Then I moved into an organization where the jobs are very different, lots of part-time staff and new-to-work staff and I got knocked on my rear. So look for mentors in your particular workplace and industry.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:31 AM on September 19

What this question brings to mind for me is the heart-sink feeling of noticing something bad happen, looking around for the ranking person in charge to deal with it, and then realizing that's you. A visitor is yelling and making a disturbance at the PTA pancake fundraiser, "wow, someone should really go talk to them and calm things down," and then looking around and realizing you're the only member of the organizing committee in the room. "Someone" is you! Now you get to go make soothing noises at everyone and apologize to whoever was getting yelled at and find the angry person somewhere else to sit or ask them to leave. And it feels a little like playing dress-up in your parents' clothes.
posted by Lady Li at 9:41 AM on September 19 [1 favorite]

For me, because it feels like playing dress-up, finding role models I respect can help a lot - they don't have to be from my same underrepresented group, but I've had some managers who are widely respected and pleasant to work with and good at asking smart questions, and when I'm my best managerial / board member / project leader self sometimes it's because I'm channeling them. Mentorship is the go-to advice but you can get a lot from watching folks operate naturally, too.
posted by Lady Li at 9:46 AM on September 19

Tempered Radicals is about non-traditional people's impact on corporate environments. I found it to be reflective of my journey as a cis-gender lesbian woman from a blue-collar union family. I have often been the only woman in the room and many times the only GLBTQ+ person in management.
posted by elmay at 3:55 PM on September 19

When I was promoted into my first managerial role I wore the mantle of responsibility very heavily, and saw myself as the "responsible party" for a large team delivering to a multi-year government contract. We had demanding and challenging clients, and so my focus was all on success of delivery, the best possible outcomes for the client, and it was a heavy burden. I was stressed and anxious all the time, and felt that it was my job to compensate for any weakness or gap in the team or the work.

That mindset quickly wore me down, led to a serious work-life imbalance, and it showed up in my behaviour toward my team as I tried to be in control of the situation. Then someone gave me a great piece of advice about re-framing my job to being one of helping my team--each individual, as well as the group as a whole--simply be the best they could be. Instead of working in service to the end product, it was now my job to do whatever it took the clear the way for and enable my team members' individual and collective performance and to help them develop the skills and confidence to be really excellent. I guess you could call it a shift to privileging people and process over outcome.

Making it about them and not me was so liberating. I was still the responsible party at the end of the day, but it allowed me to distribute work and power among the team in a way that helped us all. We delivered consistently on time and ahead of budget, and made something we were all really proud of. I've had lots of subsequent management experiences and leaned heaps about working with people, but that first lesson was probably the most transformative.

In terms of bringing your story into the room, make sure you are building an emotionally safe space where people trust each other and have good communication. As you say, everyone has stories to bring that represent a diversity of experience and vulnerabilities. I work in a field that requires a lot of collaboration. The management failures I see are usually are in the teams where people don't feel safe and where communication--genuine openness and connection--is not present.
posted by amusebuche at 6:44 PM on September 20 [1 favorite]

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