ON THE JOB: Managing your mates

The Guardian:

An internal promotion can be a godsend. More money, better prospects, no awkward settling-in period and none of the faff of learning the ropes. The journey to work doesn’t change, and the only way is up. But hang on. What’s that nagging feeling at the back of your mind? Could it be that the prospect of managing your peers — the same people you’ve worked and sweated alongside as an equal? Just how will you lay down the law with your former drinking buddies? For the newly-promoted, such concerns are often cause for anxiety.

Magazine production controller Oliver Heath’s first steps into management were filled with trepidation. Five years ago, he was promoted above older work colleagues as head of department, after just two years at the company. “To say they were my peers isn’t strictly correct,’’ he recalls. “They were more like my mentors. They trained me and looked after me when I’d come into the company as a total novice, a graduate with zero practical experience.

“What made my promotion even more of an about-turn was that I was the youngest in the department — 24 at the time — and most of them were in their 40s and 50s. I didn’t know how I was going to be able to gain their respect without them thinking of me as some kind of young whippersnapper.’’ Stuart Duff, head of development at Pearn Kandola psychologists, believes this kind of approach is asking for trouble. “It is daunting and you can feel unsure about the role, but the trick is to try not to be apprehensive, wondering `Am I good enough?’’’ Heath’s worries were compounded by the treatment of his predecessor. “We all used to moan about her behind her back, say she wasn’t up to the job and took a typical manager’s approach to any problem, which we invariably decided among ourselves was the wrong approach. Now I was in her position and was wondering what they’d be saying about me.’’ As a result, his early months as a manager were marred by concerns about upsetting the applecart. “It became implicitly understood that I’d cave in or turn a blind eye to issues that I knew — from my time as a non-manager — would upset my staff. It wasn’t exactly weak signals I gave off, but certainly an air of indifference. A kind of `Oliver won’t mind what we do’ attitude permeated the office. One colleague was persistently late, yet I never picked her up on it. Another was constantly receiving phone calls and seemed to spend most of his day surfing the net. He was a good mate of mine and I worried it would damage our friendship if I said anything.’’ This, says Duff, is an attitude to avoid at all costs. “When you become the boss, you need to be willing to sacrifice some of the closeness you may have previously had with your colleagues. Those who fail at management have often let the boundaries become blurred. They put their need to be liked ahead of their commitment to the company and the role they have to perform.’’ In time, however, Heath found his assertiveness — and his managerial standing. “Once I had a few performance reviews under my belt, a bit of training, and lost my anxiety about upsetting people, things did seem better. I started to understand that many of my staff actually wanted to be managed properly, to be led and not ignored or left alone to `get away with things’. But it was quite a bumpy ride to get to the point in time where I believed both in myself, and in their commitment to our mutual goals.’’ According to professional coach Will Thomas, a confident manager is usually a proactive and popular one. “It’s all about `walking the talk’,’’ he says. “You need to be a role model for your colleagues, prepared to set a good example.’’