New Managers: How to Survive Office Politics

Last Updated Aug 16, 2010 6:25 PM EDT

If there's one big workplace lie that any new manager
should wise up to fast, it's "There are no office politics
here." Higher-ups may do their best to discourage gossip and to
foster a schmooze-free meritocracy, but let's be honest: There's
no workplace on the planet where fostering good relationships isn't
key to getting things done.

And now that you've become a boss, it's even
more important that you "get" the political environment of
your office and learn how to work effectively with higher-ups, peers, and
direct reports. Here are five lessons to master in your first 90 days.

Understand How Your Role Has Changed

No matter how close your friendships with your officemates have been, it's time to put up some walls. "If I were managing a colleague I once hung out with, I'd stop doing it," says Caroline Ceniza-Levine, co-founder of Six Figure Start, a career coaching and consulting firm in New York City. Harsh as this may seem, if you don't establish professional boundaries, you won't have the objectivity to supervise effectively.

Patrice Williams, 39, a management consultant from Vallejo, Calif. learned this the hard way. In her twenties, she moved up to team supervisor at IBM, where she found herself managing a salesperson with whom she socialized on weekends. Soon after, her pal began coming to work late, skipping meetings, and neglecting clients, dragging down her sales in the process. Williams soon realized she needed to fire her friend, but she just couldn't. Ultimately, her boss had to step in. "I lost points," explains Williams, who says it was hard for her to recover professionally. From that point on, she changed her relationship with direct reports — "I'm personable, but not personal" — and learned to talk to them immediately about performance problems.

A few tips on how to head off awkwardness with former peers:

  • From the outset, tell everyone on your team how you will evaluate performance. If anyone in the group slacks off or breaks the rules, it will be easier to raise the issue in an objective way. "If it is very clear what you are measuring, you can say, 'This job requires x, y, and z. I'm not seeing z,'" says Ceniza-Levine.
  • Confront poor performance head on. If someone — friend or not — is failing, act decisively, says employment attorney Chad Shultz, a partner in the Atlanta office of Ford & Harrison and author of "Manage Your Employees or Get Out of the Way: Ten Rules for Preventing Lawsuits." Give formal warnings, recommend how to remedy the problem, and keep a written record of your conversations. If the situation reaches a point where you have to let him go, you don't want him to be surprised.

 

Voice of Experience

My mistake: 'I failed to set expectations.'

"All I ever wanted to be was a staff nurse," says Mary Parker, now a nurse manager. Her early days in management were rocky. Because she values independence and self-direction, she figured her direct reports (nurses and nurse assistants) felt the same way. Parker assumed they would understand their responsibilities, work cooperatively, and mentor each other. But that's not what happened. "Instead, staff members complained to me about the quality of their co-workers' documentation and care," Parker says. "Policies weren't being followed and we had close calls with medication errors."

 

Know What You Don't Know

Many companies fall short when it comes to training new managers, says Shultz. Your bosses won't expect you to know how to tackle every aspect of your new job from the outset, but they will assume that you will ask for the help you need. So, if your company wants you to take on a legally sensitive task such as giving performance reviews, and you've never done it before, don't try to wing it. Ask for coaching from HR or higher-ups. "Without training, it's easy for a new manager to overlook the implications of what one wrong thing said can do," says Shultz. If you can't get the level of help you need internally, sign up for one of the educational programs at the Society for Human Resource Management, which runs educational programs in many cities, he advises.

 

Voice of Experience

My mistake: 'I didn't know my staff'

Engineer Charlene Burke was a star in the field. "I was exceptionally good at short-term relationships — my customers loved me." But soon after receiving a promotion to a customer service call center manager, Burke no longer felt the love. She barely knew her staff when she implemented a thank-you program that rewarded top-performing employees with a small gift card. Burke presented the first gift card to a woman who had been with the company for 19 years. The effort backfired. The woman was embarrassed to be singled out and praised for merely doing her job. The staff was tight, almost like family, which Burke hadn't taken the time to understand.

Master the Unwritten Rules

If you're new to a company, understand that no matter how similar the culture seems to others you've experienced, it is going to have its own unique and sometimes bizarre quirks. "Learn how things get done — both the rational and irrational aspects of it," advises Nat Stoddard, chairman of Crenshaw Associates, an executive coaching firm in New York City, and author of "The Right Leader: Selecting Executives Who Fit." Listen carefully when colleagues volunteer tips on, say, the best time of day to approach a senior manager, and pay attention when they tell stories about the office. At the same time, says Stoddard, don't get too inquisitive. "If you are overly interested in learning something, they will wonder, 'Why? What's your motive?'" As you build your new colleagues' trust, they'll volunteer more details.

It's easy to cut yourself off from a vital pipeline if you always eat lunch alone, a common rookie mistake. Curt Braverman, a veteran manager who worked for 25 years at Pitney Bowes, realized this early in his career, when a colleague finally pushed him to grab a bite and proved to be a font of useful information. "If they've been around a while, they'll give you a hint of what's coming up and can give you some tips that will make your job easier," says Braverman.

 

Voice of Experience

My mistake: 'I didn't consult my staff on a key decision'

As the new director of operations at a now-defunct software development company, Stephen Balzac was tasked with managing engineers. He noticed right away that each week the team wasted a full day in a marathon meeting where they tracked software bugs using a primitive system. Everyone hated the meetings. So Balzac did some research and bought a proper bug-tracking system. He thought everyone would be thrilled. No more meetings! Instead, he met with passive resistance. Balzac was baffled until he realized that his unilateral decision had offended the engineers. They wanted to be consulted and made a part of the problem-solving process.

 

Be Loyal, to a Point

Be careful about seeming too closely aligned with any one person — even your direct boss, says Stephen Viscusi, CEO of the New York-based executive search firm Viscusi Group and author of "Bulletproof Your Job." The best job-protection insurance, especially as a newbie, is to remain as neutral as possible on controversial issues, he says. If your boss asks for a point of view, run through the pros and cons of a decision rather than answer directly.

Should your manager ask for your support at a meeting, offer it, but remain as neutral as possible when you're at the conference room table. If the boss buttonholes you later to ask why you didn't speak up more, you can say something diplomatic, like "Maybe I wasn't emphatic enough," Viscusi suggests. Remember that your boss could be gone tomorrow — and you could be working for the person whose point of view he opposed. "You have to be a little Machiavellian," he says.

Build the Support You Need to Get Things Done

Showing your bosses that you're ready to take on new projects isn't just a matter of stellar performance or demonstrating initiative — though these things certainly help. You also need to prove to the top brass that they can trust you in subtler ways. Many new managers over-explain to direct reports why they must take on a particular task and in doing so, pass along information from their bosses that was better kept confidential. To establish trust with your supervisor, err on the side of keeping your conversations quiet and, when in doubt, ask if the content is for general consumption. "You'll be on the hook for sharing that information," says Ceniza-Levine.

You'll also gain points by acknowledging that your bosses are privy to certain information that you don't have. Say, for instance, that you ask your boss if you can hire two more people but she says "no." Rather than step up your lobbying, ask if there is a reason for her opposition that she can share, or, perhaps, one that she can't disclose to you right now, suggests Stefanie Smith, principal of Stratex Consulting, an executive coaching firm in New York City. You never know — the company could be considering an acquisition that will fulfill that requirement, says Smith.

Even with solid backing from the top, you won't be able to get anything done if your team isn't behind you. This often means building support among longtime or more senior workers — including some who wanted your job and didn't get it. You won't win any allegiance by reminding them that you have an MBA or that your last gig was at an even bigger company. Meet with each member of your team individually to learn about his background and ask for advice on upcoming projects. "Let them know you'll be relying on their expertise," says Andrea Nierenberg, principal of The Nierenberg Group, an executive training and consulting firm in New York City. You don't have to act on the advice they give you, but listening carefully will go a long way toward building the good relationships you will need to succeed.

 

Voice of Experience

My mistake: 'I hid in my office'

Looking back on his days as a rookie manager for a contract staffing firm, Ken Wisnefski recalls spending most of his time in his office with the door closed. "I only came out to criticize or discipline the staff," he says. "I wanted to avoid getting caught up in issues that were really my job to correct and prevent," he explains. Not surprisingly, his staff soon resented him, whispering that he probably wasn't even working while holed up. Now a business owner, Wisnefski says he goes out of his way to lead by example. "While I want them to respect me, I also want them to view me as a co-worker."

Additional writing by Adriana Gardella

 

  • Elaine Pofeldt

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