A promotion is always good news—right?
We hate to break it to you, but Gartner’s research shows that nearly half of employees promoted within their organisations end up underperforming after a year and a half.
If a promotion is synonymous with career progression, what is causing this costly pattern?
The weight of new responsibilities, compounded with imposter syndrome, can be overwhelming. This stress is further exacerbated by the lack of proper “onboarding”. While the experience of rising the ranks differs across individuals, companies can take steps to care for the mental health of new managers and help them transition smoothly.
We speak with Shang Trinidad, Intellect’s very own people experience & operations lead, to see what we can glean from her decade of experience in human resources.
1. Evaluate your criteria for promotion
The number one mistake a company makes, according to Shang, is “promoting a really good performer without any leadership skills.”
In most cases, this results in burnout because these employees are so good at their jobs that they do not delegate.
Delegation appears to be the simple act of assigning projects to people, but it is a critical leadership skill that helps prevent mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion.
For star employees who may be used to performing alone, letting go can be a tall order. Those with perfectionistic tendencies often end up doing it all and wearing themselves out.
Take a step back and a leaf from Google’s playbook by distinguishing between rock stars and superstars. Rock stars refer to employees who excel as individual contributors or specialists while superstars feel more strongly about managing and motivating their own teams.
Looking at their strengths through this lens helps you avoid promoting the wrong employees or the right ones prematurely.
2. Get the team’s buy-in for external hires
It is often said that employees don’t leave companies—they leave managers. After a manager resigns, it is important to manage the risk of their subordinates following suit. This is where the hiring process has to be more thoughtful.
“What other companies fail to do is include the team in the process,” says Shang. Most companies default to merely informing the existing team to expect a new leader, she explains, and are surprised when they do not get along.
“It is important to have an additional process in the hiring wherein the team meets the applicant and asks questions. The feedback they get from the team will form the basis of your decision.”
According to Shang, this is more than just ensuring culture fit and invoking a sense of equity. Because “hiring managers are not perfect,” extended involvement helps cover their blind spots and empowers the team to make the right decision.
3. Set clear expectations and focus
The roles and responsibilities of a leader can spread new managers too thinly especially when they are self-conscious about asking for support.
To mitigate this, proactively communicate expectations and identify priorities for them.
When companies retrench employees, who should be responsible for chairing these difficult conversations? Is it the manager, HR, or CEO?
Shang recommends drawing the lines between these roles to curb ambiguity and costly decisions down the line. In her view, it is not the sole job of HR or the manager where disciplinary matters are concerned, but a joint effort.
“Companies should teach the new manager to collaborate effectively and ask questions,” Shang explains.
HR may be the ones devising and implementing processes, but their role is really to “enable managers to do their jobs but equip them with the right ways to do it.”
For instance, in performance management, HR can act as a mediator but the manager will be most familiar with their direct reports and how they absorb feedback.
4. Develop an onboarding process for new managers
Onboarding isn’t just for new joiners—it’s for new managers too. Shang concurs:
“Managers are like regular employees. We should treat them the same and they should be trained.”
Shang suggests implementing “early formalised training for every promotion” spanning from a month to a year rather than deferring to “on the job” training. When done so incrementally and rotationally, it eases new managers into their roles.
For example, they can learn about marketing in the first month, meet with the company’s leaders in the second, and attend external training in the third.
“However, traditional management programs do not fit hypergrowth and startup companies,” says Shang, adding that “learning is accelerated by practical and real-world application.” In difficult conversations, new managers can start by sitting in and taking notes until they feel comfortable and knowledgeable enough.
If a new manager finds a leadership role to be unsuitable even after gradual exposure, they can revert to the status quo. Probation is after all an assessment for both parties and it would be a pity for companies to lose talents in the attempt to advance them.
5. Align new managers and team members from the get-go
Integrating new managers can be delicate when team members love their previous manager, so getting everyone on the same page is a good start.
“Make them aware that we all have different leadership styles. It doesn’t necessarily mean that when the new manager steps in, he or she has to adapt to the style of the previous manager,” says Shang, who encourages upper management to acknowledge the team’s feelings.
“Management should first communicate with the team: let’s build a culture of trust and communication with this person. I know it’s difficult for you. It might be for the new manager as well.”
It is her belief that, like equipment, people have user manuals too. New managers can get to know their team members and build rapport: Do they share the same preferences in giving and receiving feedback? Would they rather converse over the phone or Zoom?
Aligning these matters upstream prevents tension down the road.
6. Empower them to exercise judgement and make decisions
Some new managers try to win over their team members by becoming what Shang calls “super cheerleaders.”
It is more than just saying “good job” or “go team” all the time, she says, because these feel-good phrases are non-specific. It is natural to want to be liked but the ability to give constructive feedback is defining quality.
While most companies have a centralised learning and development budget, Shang offers a new approach to upskilling: “Instead of us telling managers the budget, they tell us what their teams need and we can work on the budget together.”
If the company’s rewards and recognition program does not benefit their teams, new managers should also feel empowered to propose other frameworks.
Caring for the mental health of new managers
Whether a new manager becomes an asset or a flight risk depends on how they were selected, integrated and groomed.
Management’s best bet is to set them up for success so they not only survive as new team leads but thrive as future leaders.
As employees return to offices, new managers who were initiated in the pandemic may face new challenges. To help them and other employees deal with back-to-office anxieties, we spoke to four behavioural coaches on how best to manage them here—read on to find out more.