How to turn promotion into a success?

Psychologist Matt Biegała shares insights on supporting new managers to ensure the change proves beneficial for both them and their teams
Management, Psychology, Work

Katarzyna Kowalska: As part of the EAP (Employee Assistance Program), we work with our clients on solving various issues related to their professional lives. However, we regularly receive requests for support from individuals in a situation that not only doesn’t seem like a problem but is widely desirable. I’m referring to a promotion. 

Matt Biegała: The topic is very interesting. Indeed, a promotion is usually associated with something positive. The employee gains new opportunities, broadens the scope of their work, and takes on increased responsibilities, thereby enhancing their impact on the company’s success. They become a more integral part of the organization, and their success or failure now carries much greater significance than before. Therefore, it is worthwhile to provide support to such individuals, especially since they must confront numerous challenges that come with the new situation.

KK: On the benefits side, there is satisfaction, prestige, higher salary, and privileges. What is on the challenges side?

MB: Challenges arise in two spheres. The first is interpersonal and involves navigating different relationships with colleagues or entering a new structure. The second is intrapersonal, encompassing a shift in personal beliefs, coping with fear and stress, as well as the ability to work unlimited hours and maintain a balance between professional and personal life. Employees often struggle in these areas, hence support is needed for both improving well-being and enhancing competence. Even a few sessions are sufficient for an individual in a higher position to gain a new perspective and tools, understanding that their previous cognitive map and strategies need updating.

KK: And we often wish to remain the same and operate as we have so far… Let’s start with what needs to be changed in our relationships with others.

MB: There is a need to review or establish a hierarchy. The role, initially symmetrical where we are on equal footing, transforms into an asymmetrical one with a manager and their team. Other employees may feel a sense of injustice – why did they get the promotion. It happens that someone younger becomes the manager of individuals with extensive experience, leading to resistance in accepting new leadership, tendencies to lecture, and giving advice. However, it also occurs that the newly promoted manager is reluctant to depart from the previous hierarchy and continues to interact with team members as equals. While this can be beneficial, it becomes challenging for the manager when they need to direct work or ensure deadlines are met.

KK: When a sense of injustice arises – even if unspoken – is it better to address it or ignore it?

MB: Certainly not to ignore it because a team member experiencing it, whether knowingly or unknowingly, will more or less overtly sabotage the work. If they feel this way, it means that the current position is not satisfying them. It’s worthwhile to have an open conversation with them and consider how to support them to find themselves in a better position – whether through additional training, seeking another place or role. Take care of their ambitions.

KK: Attend to their path, which doesn’t necessarily have to be against ours.

MB: Yes, because if we don’t invest in their development, they will be dissatisfied and may leave. People usually change companies because of relationships, not necessarily due to salary or workload. It’s also good to involve a third party in the conversation – someone from HR or in a higher position. New managers often fall into the trap of one-on-one conversations, especially with people they had social relationships with before. However, when you’ve been playing the role of a friend for several years, it’s challenging to assume the role of a superior. Introducing an additional participant in the conversation objectifies it, reduces emotions, and ensures transparency that protects both sides. It’s not a failure on the part of the new manager but an expansion, aiming for a “win-win” outcome so that managing becomes smoother for them, the employee feels heard, and their needs are met.

KK: Addressing such frustrations in the team’s presence is not a good idea?

MB: Yes, especially if we have a diverse team, because when one person starts complaining or pointing out mistakes, a few others will follow suit in a herd mentality. This will introduce a negative atmosphere that we don’t need or want.

KK: What else contributes to defining the new hierarchy?

MB: Boundaries need to be set – we listen to employees and take their advice into account, but we make the decisions. In practice, conflicts often manifest in emails or messages like ‘Do you want anything else from me?’ or ‘Do I have to do this?’. Leveraging the fact that we used to be on the same level, informal language is used to push boundaries. This results in a lack of respect and passive-aggressive demands. Therefore, we are working on making written communication more formal. For example, ‘Peter, I would like you to send me the report by Friday. Thank you’.

KK: Resistance to formal behaviour may stem from the fear that we won’t be liked anymore and that we’ll stop being friends.

MB: We can be friends, but when we’re at work and discussing company matters, there’s a manager and an employee, and we communicate formally. Outside of work, it can be different; one needs to separate the two. However, when a newly appointed manager wants to go beyond their role and replies, ‘You know, our management can be a bit nit-picky sometimes’, forwarding that message can be problematic. Despite the manager’s good intentions, as they only meant to offer emotional support.

KK: Those tasked with redefining relationships during the pandemic have a challenging job.

MB: Yes. The new reality has limited the use of soft skills. Supportive hallway conversations, the ability to non-verbally sense someone’s attitude – these are often missing now. There’s only the essence of the conversation in the form of video conferences, reduced to substantive matters. And here comes the element that video meetings, email exchanges, or messaging – all of it can be recorded and potentially used. Awareness of this fact is still low. I spend a lot of time educating employees that the content they send should not create opportunities to be used against them.

KK: When thinking about a promotion, we often don’t realize to what extent it will require relationship management. Meanwhile, the higher the level in the organization, the greater the importance of such skills.

MB: The higher we are, the greater the complexity. It can be a challenge, but it’s a natural element of the development of any living organism: whether at work, in nature, or anywhere else. As we grow, complexity increases, and it is even desirable for us to fulfil our potential. Whether we like it or not, it is on our path.

KK: Part of this complexity is ourselves, our capabilities, feelings, beliefs – everything we internally have to deal with.

MB: The entire intrapersonal sphere. New managers have more responsibility and unlimited working hours, so there is a need to delineate between professional and personal life. The question arises, how, after returning from work, or currently after closing the laptop, can one transition from the role of manager to the role of a partner, single person, father, son, and so on. Employees often blame themselves for not being able to do this. The truth is that if we spent the day working on a construction site, hammering nails, when we close our eyes, we will still be hammering nails, our mind is full of it. Thoughts about work don’t stop magically. It is necessary to create a ritual for oneself to transition from one sphere to another. You can take a walk with the dog, take a shower, write down on paper what needs to be done tomorrow to transfer things from working memory to paper and leave them there. So that this event marks the closure, the end of the workday.

KKI also think that we need to have something equally captivating in other areas of life. Because if we fulfil ourselves solely at work, it’s difficult to transition to other spheres.

MB: Yes, that is rarely considered. It’s said that a person should close the laptop, and they do, but they still think and feel guilty. However, when we look deeper, we see that they enjoy this job – the excitement, stimulation, adrenaline, and the sense of influence. And then at home, they don’t find anything equally engaging. So, they return to work not because they suffer from workaholism or have to, but because the work is more interesting.

KK: It turns out that when we have a more attractive job, we should also have a more attractive life outside of it; otherwise, the balance will be disrupted.

MB: Attractive in the sense that it fulfils our needs. It doesn’t have to follow the ‘work hard, play hard’ principle – where we either go out to have a great time or spend three hours sweating at the gym. It could be a dinner with a partner or playing with a child. Something calm but fulfilling and consciously experienced.

KK: In a new situation, the fear of not coping often arises. A person may not want to admit it, but they are afraid. What should they do?

MB: The fact that one is afraid means that what they are doing is taken seriously. We can look at it from the perspective of two types of stress. There is so-called life stress – we have too much to read, we’re stuck in traffic, children are running around and don’t want to go to sleep, we are tired. The response to this stress is taking care of oneself, making a cup of tea, or taking a bath. Another type of stress occurs when we enter a new, more complex area, and we don’t know where we stand because things haven’t been sorted out yet – this is survival stress. If we tell someone in such a situation to ‘take a shower or drink green tea’, they will rightly ask what that will change. It may help a bit, but it doesn’t address the needs. What works is a learning and adaptation strategy. I acknowledge that I lack the skills and experience to do something. I need to learn, expand my resources. I reach for literature, consult wiser people, ask the company for mentoring or EAP support because I need a new perspective, I need a new map. I’m afraid because subconsciously I know that I won’t cope with what I have. So, instead of treating fear as something bad that needs to be removed, we use it to adapt to new conditions.

KK: It’s important because it may seem that when we receive a new position, someone has deemed us the right person, so we must prove that we are, instead of telling our bosses that we need support. Although I wouldn’t take it negatively.

MB: I would even be concerned if a new manager didn’t ask for support or educate themselves. Because it’s not about what this person knows but whether they can learn, adapt, and adjust to the new situation. Especially as we enter a period of a new reality, including the fourth industrial revolution, and the rules will change completely shortly. So, the ability to learn and the awareness that continuous learning to better cope with increasing complexity is something natural and should be present at every stage, regardless of whether someone is 20, 30, 50, or 60 years old.

KK: I think even telling employees, ‘Tell me about something, show me’ can also give them a chance to demonstrate their skills and can benefit the team.

MB: If the manager is confident and doesn’t make it so that roles are reversed. That is, when they understand that they may not know everything and then involve team members. But it doesn’t mean that suddenly everyone becomes equal or that employees start dominating, because the manager still sets the direction.

KK: What else comes up in conversations with new managers?

MB: It’s worth mentioning age discrimination – both when the manager is younger and when they are older. For example, a person aged 50–55, transitioning from a specialist position to a managerial role, expresses concern about why those younger than them should listen, considering that they may have a better understanding in many aspects. This person feels it’s their responsibility to seek input from the younger team members.

KK: This sounds like self-discrimination…

MB: Yes, it’s not the younger team discriminating against this person; they discriminate against themselves. Meanwhile, companies need employees who may not be as fast and able to work 15 hours a day but have gone through crises and difficult situations without losing their composure. Someone with significant experience will say, ‘we’ll get through this’, while a younger person might panic because they haven’t weathered such a storm yet. In Western companies, I see greater respect for older managers due to their experience, insight, and knowledge. In Polish companies, there are still many complexes. I discuss these internal beliefs. They often arise in a technological context. While the younger generation—those in their twenties—are ‘digital natives’ who naturally use technology, older generations, let’s say thirty and above, are ‘digital immigrants’ who are learning. For them, direct contact remains the primary communication platform.

KK: They blame themselves for a lack of technical competence and don’t appreciate the value of a certain life attitude.

MB: These attitudes, soft skills, unfortunately, tend to get lost in remote work. New managers say they used to handle things by going to the employee, having a chat, sharing a laugh, and everything was fine. Now, this area where their competencies lay, and where they felt strong, has suddenly been taken away. Here, there is a need to work on beliefs and have faith that one possesses the right competencies, and the fact that they may struggle a bit with technology doesn’t mean they are inferior overall.

KK: Some promotions, however, are misguided, or we accept them because, after all, everyone should want a promotion, even though they don’t actually suit us.

MB: Or personality-wise, it may not be our cup of tea. Some individuals prefer more analytical, structured work where they know what’s happening. On the other hand, a manager’s job involves managing change and dynamic relationships. Not everyone is suited for this. They may be able to perform the job, but at a significant cost, whereas they feel much more comfortable in their comfort zone, where they deal with numbers. So, the question is whether the person is in the right place personality-wise.

KK: It’s different when you need support, feel fear, but generally want to move in a certain direction. It’s another story when the further you go, the worse it gets. What do you do then?

MB: For managers, continuity is essential, so there’s no information about them resigning or giving up after three months. Typically, they want to last for a year or two and only then consider making a change. So, they have questions about how to deal with new challenges, but they’re not usually thinking about withdrawal. The first three or even six months are about adaptation, learning, so conclusions come at the end of the year. That’s when we can determine if it’s not the right fit or if it’s too much. However, usually, when you help new managers work on the hierarchy, clarify relationships with difficult employees, they do very well.

KK: From our entire conversation, it is evident that promotion is just the first step toward success in a new role, and the real key lies in the change in relationships with others and with oneself, which must occur only after it. Thank you very much for the meeting.

MB: Thank you, and those interested are welcome to collaborate.

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