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The challenge of exercising authority.

The transition from star performer to a competent manager can be trying for many--even traumatic. The skills that led to success as a salesperson, for example, are very different from those needed to manage a sales force. New managers must learn how to lead others, to win trust and respect, to motivate, and to strike the right balance between delegation and control. It is a transition many new managers fail to make.

In Becoming A Manager: Mastery Of A New Identity (see Book Review, June 1992), Harvard Business School Associate Professor Linda Hill traces the experiences of 19 new managers over the course of their first year in a managerial capacity. Through personal interviews she reveals the complexity of the process and examines the expectations of the managers, their subordinates and their superiors. In their own words the managers describe how they reframed their understanding of their roles and responsibilities, how they learned to build effective work relationships with subordinates, how and when they used individual and organizational resources, and how they learned to cope with the stresses and emotions of the transformation. Above all, they describe what it meant to take on a new identity. (For additional comments from Professor Hill, see "Are Career Seminars For Black Managers Worth It?" this issue.)

Two themes emerge from this book. First, the transition from individual contributor to manager represented a profound psychological adjustment--a transformation--as the managers tried to contend with their new responsibilities. Second, the process of becoming a manager is primarily one of learning from experience. Through trial and error, observation and interpretation, the new managers learned what it took to become an effective business leader. In the following excerpt, from the chapter "Exercising Authority," the author focuses on how the new managers had to learn how to exercise their newly acquired authority. Ironically, to do so required that they develop the capacity to exercise power and influence effectively without relying simply on their formal authority or power of position. More specifically, they had to learn how to:

* establish credibility

* build subordinate commitment

* lead the group

From Reliance On Formal Authority To Establishing Credibility

As they began in their new positions, the managers talked about getting off on the right foot, and felt that "a first impression is a lasting impression." Much thought and energy went into deciding how they should look and behave in the first days on the job: "Because I'm new, they are still impressionable. They don't have any preconceived notions yet. It's an opportunity to define who I am for them.

"The first thirty days were critical. I had to demonstrate that I had ability. I kept looking for a big win, picking the right stock, stealing a big producer from the competition. I had to demonstrate that I worked hard. I stay late nights and came in on weekends. I wanted them to know I wasn't just a crisis manager. It was hard to get relief from the pressure of it all."

The managers were surprised to find out how difficult it was to build credibility and trust. First impressions, though important, counted for only so much. They had embarked on a slow and arduous journey:

"I knew I was a good guy and I kind of expected people to accept me immediately for what I was, but you really had to earn it. Folks were very wary. As a new manager, you had to earn their respect.

"I finally realized I had to earn their respect when a fairly senior person said to me, 'You are trying too soon to be one of us. You are assuming you are a sales rep still and you can be one of the gang, but you are not. You have to understand that and accept that.' Yet, other sales managers were one of the gang, and you say, Wait a minute--why is it different?"

The managers soon recognized they had to prove that they deserved their subordinates' respect and trust. Indeed, they felt as if they were being scrutinized under a microscope. The subordinates were clearly sizing them up, but they relied on stereotypes and evenly highly impressionistic information in judging managerial credibility. One manager was horrified that his being divorced was grist for the mill: "In the Midwest it matters if you are divorced. They [his subordinates] wondered if it meant I could not maintain strong relationships."

At first the managers appreciated only one criterion their subordinates used in evaluating them: Was the new manager competent? Although the managers primarily meant technically competent, they later recognized that their subordinates had a second, equally significant question: What are the managers' motives or intentions? After reflecting on numerous subordinate comments and reactions, one manager finally figured out that his subordinates "weren't so much worried if I could do the job," but rather they were "looking for clues that I was only out for [myself]".

Just as they had started by thinking of managers as technical experts, not managers of people, the managers put more effort into demonstrating their competence (especially technical competence) than into their commitment to their subordinates. Many of them therefore missed early opportunities for building good will among their subordinates, just when they needed it most. Inevitably, the managers made mistakes on the job. Whether or not the subordinates would forgive and forget strongly depended on whether or not they saw the manager as caring and supportive. A subordinate of the manager who had taken the time to learn her subordinates' names commented:

"She has been tremendously generous and she has demonstrated from the start that she will give support. She has given so much I suspect she dipped into her own personal funds. That has been very well received. She brought and paid for loyalty that will get her something later when she tries to create high expectations. She'll see it has paid off."

The managers had to learn what their subordinates looked for in judging managerial commitment. They discovered two factors that most subordinates weighted very heavily: how much time and resources the manager invested in subordinates' mistakes. The managers could see that availability and active, one-on-one involvement with individual subordinates were critical in developing effective relationships:

"I hardly shut my door. The door is always open. When I'm talking to people and the phone starts ringing I just let it keep on ringing. I try to provide an atmosphere where I'm constantly available and I'm not your boss from a negative standpoint or to watch out for you or to babysit for you. But no, I'm your boss from a positive standpoint. I'm here to help people contribute, and I'm here to contribute whatever is necessary to make you successful."

They saw that small things and personal touches made a difference, as in working side-by-side with their subordinates on special projects, working nights, and taking them out to dinner:

"I held a big party downtown for a broker who had been with the company twenty-eight years and who was retiring. I gave him a nice gift. It just seemed like the thing to do. Well, people were very excited. Everybody talked about it for weeks; it seemed to them that I cared. People are very aware of those things."

"A terrific manager is a manager who has a lot of contact." One manager said, "My time is my most valuable and prized possession. I spend a lot of time just sitting and talking." The managers came to recognize that they must take others' feelings into account and be responsive to build credibility and trust.

At first, some of the managers resented the need to "stroke" their people and talk about personal matters. These activities were not a part of the job description. Indeed, they were so overworked and overwhelmed by the new position that finding the time to spend with subordinates was no mean feat. But in their quieter moments they recalled their own experiences as subordinates:

"I hated it when my manager closed the door, even if I did not want to go in there. I just didn't like the idea that the door was closed. Does that make sense? I just hated the idea that he had the audacity to close the door and that I would have to knock if I wanted to see him."

Many of the new managers also received feedback, both formal and informal, that they were not spending enough time with their subordinates. A peer of a new manager shared this experience: "She [a new manager] got back a bad summary. We were talking about it, what she was doing wrong. I said just go out and touch someone. She said she couldn't do it."

Moreover, as the managers realized that they depended on their subordinates to be effective on the job, they began to define building effective relationships as a critical aspect of their responsibility. They began to see that devoting time and energy to this endeavor bore fruit.

It became clear that their subordinates were especially sensitive to their way of responding to mistakes, when deciding whether or not the manager could be trusted. The subordinates seemed to expect them to hear their side of the story, be fair, and as much as possible protect them from negative consequences. Although they misunderstood the subordinates' expectations, they found them difficult to meet. They could not help but feel that a subordinate's mistake reflected badly on the manager. The managers admitted that their first impulse was to become angry and punish the subordinate:

"He [a sales representative] really screwed up. He ordered and shipped the wrong keyboard. It would cost the branch a few thousand dollars to rectify. It was just an oversight. He should not have done it. I wanted to go through the ceiling and tell him I'd kill him if it happened again and take it out of his hide. It took all my willpower to remain cool and tell him not to let it happen again and that I could cover it in the budget when I knew my boss would not be happy.

"The difference is, as soon as they trust you and know where you are coming from, then you become more like one of the gang. It takes going through a couple of crises where you have a couple of options. You really can either blame the rep for everything that happens, and play Pontius Pilate and wash your hands of it, or you can dig in and say, 'Okay, you made a mistake. A mistake happens and I am not worried about whom to blame it on. The question is, how do we fix it?' If you go through a few of those and there are really no reprisals, you are on your way.

"If they make a mistake, they expect me to go through that mistake with them, to do what needs to be done to correct it, to go to bat for them, but not to chastise or punish for mistakes that were made unknowingly, which I call legitimate mistakes."

Especially in the beginning the managers felt that their subordinates were actively testing them.

The managers described most of the tests as "thinly veiled or explicit challenges to their authority." The more insidious and seductive tests, though, were subordinates' efforts to befriend them: "They either try to give you all kinds of trouble or to befriend you." As this manager's comments reveal, it was often the manager who initiated the "friendship trap" not the subordinates:

"I think probably the first four or five months on the job, whenever a rep came in with a problem, maybe the first three months, I was too intent on having the reps like me, gaining credibility with them. When they came in with a problem I'd grab it and run with it so that they would like me."

This was a very important admission. Most new managers very much wanted to be liked. Research on salespeople indicates that they generally have an above-average need to be liked. The managers in this study were no different. One said he had to "fight the burning desire to be accommodating and not make the tough decisions, so that they would like me."

Until the managers recognized this collision with their subordinates--that the manager was a friend--they were unable to confront a fundamental managerial tension: the difference between being respected and being liked. Resolving this conflict was critical in fully accepting the responsibility in being a manager and developing credibility. The managers had to learn that building strong personal relationships with trust and confidence did not mean becoming a friend: "When I think about the exceptional sales managers I know, their people respect them and also like them. But the first piece is respect."

D.C. McClelland and D.H. Burnham found in their classic study of managerial motivation ("Power Is The Great Motivator," Harvard Business Review, March/April 1976) that the better managers have a higher need for power than they do affiliation. Managers with high affiliation needs, trying to stay on good terms with everyone, indiscriminately made exceptions for individuals that their other subordinates often considered grossly unfair.

Finally, to build credibility and trust, the managers had to learn not to respond defensively to challenges and criticisms from subordinates. In the early months, this restraint was next to impossible for them to achieve. One new manager said he needed to "at least hold on to the illusion that [he] was the boss ... and the boss is always right." By the end of the year, this manager was able to manage these challenges more effectively.

How did the managers learn to handle these challenges to their authority more gracefully without becoming defensive? For one thing, they came to realize that having a subordinate disagree with them about something did not mean a challenge to their authority. As they gained self-confidence, they understood that a subordinate might legitimately have a different point of view on an issue and was simply trying to express an opinion. Further, out of necessity, the managers became more "thick-skinned." Much to their surprise and chagrin, the new managers were inundated with "negatively." To survive, they learned to cope with the stresses associated with negative feedback and emotions. But more important, only by giving up the myth of manager as expert and feeling more self-assured could they tolerate negative feedback from their subordinates.

From Control To Commitment

A primary aim of the managers when they started in their new positions was learning how to exercise or gain control over their people. They were eager to exercise their formal authority and to implement their own ideas about how to run an effective organization.

As we have seen, most of the managers adopted a hands-on, autocratic approach to management. This approach was consistent with their initial notion of the managerial role: the manager as boss. They chose such a style not because they were eager to exercise power over people, but because they wanted to influence results. Initially, they were unaware that they were being very directive. Most described their management style as consultative, not authoritative. Looking back at their first months on the job, though, they provided these less than flattering descriptions of themselves:

"This was not a democracy. It was a kingdom, and I was the king who would handle all the problems."

"I wasn't good at managing. I am really a driver and so I was bossy like a first-grade teacher."

"Now I see that I started out as a drill sergeant. I was inflexible, just a lot of 'how to's.' This is the way you do this, this is the way you do that."

The managers soon discovered the limits of their formal authority, however. They were giving directives, but very few people seemed to be following their orders. Their subordinates were testing them. And the managers were failing to meet the challenges to their authority, for they were unable to "force" their subordinates to fulfill their requests. One manager described exasperatedly how he began to feel uncomfortable in his "huge paneled, elegant office, an office fit for a regional director [a manager two levels above]." He began to feel like a fraud. "I can't even guarantee that my secretary will do what she is told."

The managers did not realize that they were confronting a basic reality of managerial work: that management is as much a position of dependence as a position of authority. They had to learn to lead by persuasion and not by directive. When asked, after eight months on the job, what advice he would give a new manager, one manager remarked after a hearty laugh, "Whatever you do, don't let the title of manager get to you, because it's not much of a title. Remember you're the same person you were before you took the job."

This manager said he had made a big step. He was on his way to understandin what his role was. He had learned that it was not to befriend his subordinates, nor to compete with or dominate them. Rather, a manager must motivate and develop subordinates toward the organization's objectives: "I began to see them [her subordinates] as clients, who I had to pull rather than push along."

From Managing The Individual To Leading The Group

When the average person thinks about exercising authority, he or she immediately thinks about leadership. The managers, like the average person, acknowledged their leadership responsibilities. From their first days on the job, they sprinkled the word "leadership" throughout their conversations, announcing, for example, that they intended to lead the organization. Leadership seemed a catch-all phrase. They were not able to articulate with much confidence what they meant by it; they just knew it was important and that it was their job as manager to play the leadership role.

Without a doubt, leadership is one of the most studied and least understood notions. Two tenets, however, are implicit in all definitions of leadership. The first is the idea that leaders manage not simply by directive, but by persuasion, motivation, and empowerment; they identify and gain commitment to an exciting or challenging vision. The second is that leaders manage not only individual performance, but also group performance; as a way of exercising authority, they create the appropriate organizational context. Consider definitions by two renowed experts. W.G. Bennis (coauthor of Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge, Harper and Row, N.Y. 1985) describes leadership: a leader "knows what he wants, communicates those intentions successfully, empowers others, and knows when and how to stay on course and when to change." J.P. Kotter (author of The Leadership Factor, Free Press, N.Y. 1988) distinguishes between leadership and management: "management controls people by pushing them in the right direction, leadership motivates them by satisfying basic needs." Kotter says that leaders set direction, align people, and motivate people, and managers plan and budget, organize and staff, and control and solve problems. In their research both men go to great lengths to demonstrate the attention and skill that leaders devote to creating a context or culture that will encourage subordinates to better their performance and commitment.

Before the managers could begin to understand what providing leadership meant, they had to grasp their fundamental ideas. We have seen how they learned the former. We now consider how they came to understand the second idea, the significance of managing group performance and context.

The new managers did not come to appreciate the distinction between managing the individual and managing the group until near the end of the year. For most of the year, they conceived of their people-management role as building the most effective relationships they could with individual subordinates. One manager said it was the "personal relationship that affected whether people worked hard or even stayed." No wonder the managers neglected managing their groups; that responsibility was not part of their awareness. How did they come to see the importance of managing the group? As with everything else, the realization came with experience--particularly the mistakes. The managers were perplexed to discover that actions directed at one subordinate often had unintended influence on other subordinates. In the examples they mentioned most often, they had made an exception for a subordinate:

"My biggest mistake so far. I really screwed up royally. I hired a guy from the competition because one of the regional objectives is that we hire a certain number of people from the competition and my bonus was in jeopardy. I got the guy cheap; he was from a really small firm and wanted an opportunity to work in the big leagues. Well, a guy had never been hired from the competition in the office before. To make it worse, instead of money to entice him, I gave him a private office. I had made a big mistake. The people in the office said there was an unwritten rule that you had to have seniority in the office to have a private office. They were very upset for over a month. It took up most of my time talking and explaining my rationale to people. Four months later and it still hasn't completely blown over."

Almost all the managers described situations in which they thought they were just being flexible but ended up making exceptions that proved dangerously precedent setting:

"I was being nice; I didn't want to be completely tied to the book. I didn't want it to feel like I was just a rules-and-regulations person. Well, Mr. Nice made one exception to a rule and discovered he had created a monster. It spread through the grapevine and then everyone had to know if they could have the same treatment."

From such circumstances the managers found that their actions, though intended to address an immediate problem or issue, had broader effects. Soon they saw that they could take advantage of this phenomenon, which one manager called a "mystic new power": "Even my most insignificant decisions can have an impact on the atmosphere around here."

Soon they began to talk about being proactive in creating such effects. For at about the same time they were having this revelation, they could feel that they were managers, not doers. They began to define themselves as organizers or orchestrators. Further, they began to toy with the possibility of orchestrating the right atmosphere: "I finally realized that my responsibility consisted of bringing good people together with good people, creating the right environment, and getting out of the way." They had discovered that organizational culture could be a very efficient and effective tool for managerial control.

By the end of the year most managers were working to set the context within which their subordinates were working. Hoping to create a healthy organizational environment, they began working toward four objectives: defining the long-term goals or vision for the organization, setting high standards, creating an open and supportive climate, and (for just a few) building a cohesive team.

The new managers wholeheartedly accepted setting the organization's long-term goals, seeing this as a quintessential managerial task; it had originally attracted many of them to management. At first they directed all their attention to identifying the right strategy for the organization. The definition of leadership became "determining the vision." As they learned to appreciate communication and ownership, they set themselves to building subordinates' commitment to the strategy. One manager issued "A Manager's Pledge," laying out his goals for the office, beginning with the promise "To surround you with high-quality people who have a winning attitude."

The managers eventually found that the course was not set merely by pronouncement, however. In many ways their actions spoke louder than words:

"I'm the role model. I set the direction and pace of the office by the kinds of people I hire (you're only as good as the people you hire), the products I tell them to push, those I reward and punish, those who need help. From these activities they really get a handle on where I want them to go. It filters down."

As the managers saw the need to build commitment, they relied more on these indirect methods of control that influenced the entire group. They could "stretch" subordinate expectations and "ask for more" from them if they relied upon the "subtle pressure" of organizational culture and "symbolic gestures," not explicit requests:

"I can get away with general statements, like 'I believe people should be as good as they can be and are as good as you allow them to be.' But if I said it directly to one of my people, 'I think you should be as good as you can be,' he might take it as an implied criticism."

"You can't keep driving them. You can create a climate that they'll want to work in. Use subliminals to motivate them. Management is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do, without their knowing it."

The managers strove to build a culture of high standards, supportiveness, and openness. Their first priority was to create an atmosphere of ambitious goals and optimism:

It should inspire them to be better than they are through subtle pressure; to be ambitious, with little tolerance for poor performance or mediocrity. We provide high-quality service. We always want to reach just beyond our potential.

Many managers realized that if they were going to expect subordinates to give 110 percent, then they had to build a culture that was also supportive and open, recognizing the special stresses in the sales function:

In this business you can have a bad day, bad week, bad month. It can be demoralizing. You've got to keep them on track. Once they get demoralized they start bitching and want to just get away from the office.

Frustration levels get high. If they don't make quota, they don't make quota, they don't eat. It is important to maintain an informal atmosphere, a position where the door is always open and I'm walking around and talking to everybody. People will know I'll be responsive to their needs.

I have to create an environment where the fear is stripped out, so that they will be as creative and hardworking as possible. It has to be a trusting climate with a fix-it, problem-solving orientation. A nurturing environment where people emphasize growth and development. A place where people can be honest and speak what's on their mind.

By the end of the year the managers acknowledged how important it was to build a culture that could set the tone they believed most conducive to employees' satisfaction and performance.

Concluding Remarks

During their first year the managers became aware of some of the major principles in exercising authority: establishing credibility, building subordinates' commitment, and leading the group. Two factors that decidedly influenced their ability to internalize these lessons were refining their understanding of the managerial role and their increased self-confidence. To be effective in influencing their subordinates, they had to accept their role as manager of people and to confront their insecurity: "I had to get rid of that albatross called my ego, but still maintain self-assurance."

They still had much to learn about how to exercise power and influence; now that they understood some of the principles, they had to implement them. Exercising power and influence, especially without relying heavily on formal authority, is a challenge for even the most seasoned managers.

But a substantial foundation was laid. The managers now appreciated the need to build and nurture relationships with subordinates. They were gaining richer understanding of human nature and were becoming more sensitive to others' feelings. Their sources of power and strategies for gaining influence were more diverse. They had moved from almost exclusive reliance on their position and track record as sources of power. They realized that they had to establish credibility and trust with their subordinates before they could influence them. They came to see that assertiveness (as in using incentives and pressures) was only one of many strategies for gaining influence, as they observed the value of achieving commitment from and not simply control over subordinates. The managers began to supplement "push" influence strategies (approaches in which an individual pushes against another to get him or her to change in some way) with "pull" (the individual attracts another to get him or her to change in some way). That is, they began to attempt, albeit at times with limited finesse, to build bridges or connections with subordinates or to motivate or inspire them to pursue mutually agreed-upon goals.

Finally, the managers were becoming aware that they must empower or share power with their subordinates. Early in the year the idea of sharing would have been anathema; as bosses, they were to be in complete control. By the end of the year the managers had redefined their understanding of what it meant to be in control.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:excerpt from 'Becoming a Manager: Mastery of a New Identity'
Author:Hill, Linda A.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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