“Hey, I have some good news. You’ve just been promoted to management!
Your work as an individual contributor has been consistently excellent. In appreciation for your commitment and hard work, you’re being promoted. You start tomorrow. Good luck, and we’re all counting on you!”
Chances are, if you’ve managed people before, you may have received a similar missive. And since your excellent performance led you to this moment, you may feel like your achievements as an individual contributor have prepared you for this next step. But management is a very different animal, less an extension of your role as an individual contributor and more like a reversal — one that can require a mind-bending shift in perspective and approach.
As an individual contributor, you’re focused on your own learning; as a manager, you’re responsible for developing other people. Before, you managed your own emotions; now, you have to manage everyone’s feelings. Before, you worried about your own performance. Now, you have to provide feedback on your employees’ performance.
Above all, as an individual contributor, you were responsible for delivering good work. Now, you’re responsible for the people doing the work. As psychologist Robert Cialdini puts it, the main challenge of management is “getting things done through others … to figure out how to motivate and direct a highly individualistic workforce.”
As it turns out, getting people to do what you need them to do is anything but direct. Here’s how to get your bearings.
Lead with relatedness, not authority
Too often, the obvious approach to getting people to do what you want — telling them what to do — is a mistake. If you assume your power comes from your formal authority and position in the hierarchy, you may be tempted to micromanage or take an autocratic approach. But this robs employees of autonomy and erodes relatedness, causing people to rebel or resent you. Even if they do comply with your orders, explains Linda A. Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School, employees won’t take the initiative.
“Playing the ‘Because I’m the boss card’ is out,” explains psychologist Robert Cialdini. “Even if it weren’t demeaning and demoralizing for all concerned, it would be out of place in a world where cross-functional teams, joint ventures, and intercompany partnerships have blurred the lines of authority.”
Instead of relying on your formal authority, focus on building relationships with your team members, nurturing what psychologists call “relatedness.” The main trigger that makes us like people is knowing they like us.
Schedule one-on-ones with everyone and get to know your team members. Ask them to walk you through their day and their processes. Be curious, and ask what you can do to support them in their work. Listen to feedback, and be open to ideas and suggestions. “Create early bonds with new peers, bosses, and direct reports by informally discovering common interests,” Cialdini advises. “You’ll establish goodwill and trustworthiness.”
Play the coach, not the supervisor
As a manager, your job is to help your team members grow and make their own decisions, not solve their problems for them.
When an employee comes to you with a problem, and you know the solution, it’s tempting to just tell them the answer. But doing so deprives them of the opportunity to build their own problem-solving abilities. More importantly, you’re subtly undermining their autonomy. When you present your own thoughtful solution, they have no choice but to do what you say.
Think of yourself less like a boss and more like the coach of an athletic team. Your job isn’t to tell them what moves to make — it’s to help them become better versions of themselves and empower them to make their own decisions. So instead of supplying the answer, try to improve their thinking, asking thought-provoking questions to lead them to solutions and insights of their own. By doing this, you’ll help cultivate a culture of continuous learning and development.
Praise generously and resist the urge to blame
One of the best ways to increase your team’s motivation and engagement is to praise them when they do good work. The desire for status is one of the five fundamental drivers of social threat and reward. So show appreciation for effort and good work. Praise generously and publicly, celebrate progress and wins, and give credit where credit is due. When your team members feel appreciated and supported, it builds relatedness, increases engagement and trust, and boosts their motivation to continue doing great work.
Just as important as praising your team is resisting the urge to blame them for mistakes. When you’re leading a team, employees will make mistakes so perplexing you’ll have trouble understanding how they could’ve happened. However foolish a mistake may seem, resist the urge to shame employees — and never, ever blame them publicly.
Assigning blame saps motivation and erodes trust and relatedness. More importantly, it obliterates the growth mindset and psychological safety employees need to feel comfortable experimenting, taking risks, and trying new ways of doing things. So when you give feedback, be supportive and positive, demonstrating how much you care about their growth and development.
The first requirement for good leadership — something many new managers overlook — is self-awareness. As you embark on this new chapter, take the time to conduct a thorough self-assessment.
Define your purpose as a manager and understand your broader leadership philosophy. Make a list of any weaknesses, triggers, and blind spots that could interfere with your ability to support your team members. Inventory your strengths and superpowers. What matters is not what those answers are but understanding yourself — knowing what you bring to the table so you can leverage your unique strengths in support of your team.
Be humble and curious
Becoming a good leader is an ongoing process. As you step into your new role, expect to encounter complex challenges, whether it’s managing conflict or dealing with underperforming team members. No doubt you’ll make mistakes along the way. The important thing is to leverage those mistakes as opportunities for learning and personal growth.
So make a point to find mentors you can trust and share things with in confidence. Talk things out when you’re looking for confirmation, advice, or a third-party perspective. Keep an open mind, seek feedback, and be ready to adapt your approach as needed.
Just as important, make time to think deeply about how you can get better. Try keeping a journal of your experiences and insights. When you have a meaningful success or failure, reflect on what could have gone better, what insights you can draw, and what you could do differently next time. As philosopher John Dewey put it, we don’t learn from experience — we learn from reflecting on our experiences.
Learning to lead doesn’t happen overnight. Becoming a good manager is an ongoing journey that requires humility, curiosity, and adaptability. But by building relatedness, praising generously, and guiding your team members to insight, you’ll master the skills needed to lead a strong and resilient team.
Author: Jay Dixit