Long ago, when our club (back in Pallom, my village in India) used to practice cricket for tournaments, it was stunning to see how some of my team mates batted. Sometimes, they were in such good form that it was impossible to bowl any ball that they wouldn’t smash out of the ground. The practice matches gave them a lot of confidence. But when the tournament came around, it was the exact opposite – some of them were hard pressed to find a single run.
The same phenomenon happens every day in business life. People who are extremely successful at a job fall apart when promoted to the next level. Dr. Laurence J Peter immortalized this observation through his Peter Principle: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Why does this happen?
As a person who has experienced setbacks during such transitions and who has seen others in the same situations, here are some reasons why this occurs. These are not comprehensive, of course:
- Failure to change work styles: A newly promoted manager sometimes does not easily relinquish his (or her) way of working. For example, a previous job as a developer may require detailed hands-on analysis involving intricate details. Such active participation when managing can lead to putting a lot of pressure on one’s time. It can de-motivate employees who view it as micro-management and lack of trust. Similarly, a work style dependent on long stretches of uninterrupted time may in a management position with innumerable distractions.
- Clinging to past relationships: Barack Obama, in his 2004 Democratic Convention address, talked about the “slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white“. In many situations (like poor neighborhoods as well as business environments), people fear that their new position may lead to their alienation from existing friends and community. To placate their peers, people take care not to modify any behavior (including dress, speech, etc.) that may set them apart. Managing conflicts and establishing performance guidelines become extremely challenging with such an attitude.
- Hubris: Since the promoted persons have been successful at their previous jobs, they have exaggerated self-confidence which means that they are blind to the possibility of risks and failures. When such problems materialize, the person is totally unprepared to deal with the situation and all sorts of self-defeating behavior (denial, depression, anger, etc.) can result. A related problem is that since most management skills are “soft” skills (like team building, negotiation, etc.) that cannot be quantitatively measured easily, many new managers tend to over-estimate their capability in those qualities.
- Focus on the wrong skills: I cannot count the number of occasions when I have seen people wasting enormous amounts of time and money on training for skills that were useful in their prior job, but pretty much worthless for their immediate and long-term future. Some subjects are like a person’s first love – extremely difficult to say goodbye to. Hoarding knowledge is sometimes tempting because it creates a sense of achievement, which is ultimately false, because it is a significant loss of opportunity.
- Not being able to cut the cord: The new manager was herself managed in the previous job, which meant taking less responsibility. In contrast, a managerial role can be terribly lonely and suffocating. Some people may thrive on autonomy, but it can be frightening for others who may feel abandoned and neglected by their superiors. I am not a psychiatrist, but my empirical observations suggest that the personal background of a person, such as family upbringing, schooling and prior employment, play a significant role in shaping a person’s ability to be self-sufficient and battle issues alone.
I do not mean to belittle someone who feels content to work in a non-managerial capacity. A conscious choice to work in the field that one loves is a decision that deserves the utmost respect. This article is meant for those who find themselves, like I did in the past, totally unprepared in a new managerial position. Awareness of these pitfalls can provide some relief.