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Leadership Management

Five struggles first time managers may face

Tiago Coelho, 
September 22nd, 2021 · 6 min read

Many software engineers have considered moving into a management position such as team leader, engineering manager, or another position within the market’s wide range of management positions at a certain point in their career.

Whether you are an Individual Contributor (IC) considering a management change or a manager helping someone into the move, this post may help you. I’m providing my perspectives about five struggles that I saw managers facing in the past years - inclusive myself - that might arise when transitioning to a management position. The goal is to help everyone to make smooth transitions so new managers can flourish and enjoy the role!

Understanding the differences

If you get promoted to manager, you must clearly understand the new responsibilities and the expectations in the new role, either from your manager and your direct reports. It’s not just the role name and the responsibilities that change — the way of working, positioning, reporting, and contributing changes. The combination of all these changes is not always easy to understand and visualize in the new role.

IC and Management positions are different

While on the IC track, employees’ primary work has the intrinsic technical knowledge related to the role they are working on as a base, and their performance defines their success. Typically, they only report upwards or sideways, depending on the organizational design model, so they utterly complete and deliver their work, which is usually easy to measure based on the deliveries. Individual Contributors also perform self-management, and senior members might mentor someone with less technical skills, but this is just a tiny chunk of what management is all about.

On the management side, a manager’s job is to coordinate peers, helping them to achieve their best for the team to succeed, and the people’s success in their charge measures managers’ success. Multiple contacts may happen between peers, supervisors, clients, and communities, meaning that resources coordination, communication, and people management will be matters that will always be present, and deal with them have entirely different challenges comparing to the ICs’ work.

It’s essential never to push someone into a management position because it’s a career change, not a promotion. When transitioning to a management position, it’s necessary to clarify the new reality new managers will face, the type of everyday challenges, and what supervisors and direct reports expect from them in the new role.

Don’t try to be the hero

New managers see interactions with the team in their charge as opportunities to show their knowledge, providing solutions to problems, so that they feel happy and fulfilled at the end of the day, knowing that their team is moving forward on their behalf. This couldn’t be more wrong. To be a good manager, you should look at these interactions as an opportunity to ask intelligent questions, showing interest in what the team thinks, and allow the team itself to come up with a range of different solutions.

When transitioning to a new management position, you shouldn’t try to be the hero that answers all the questions and solves all the problems for the team, otherwise, the team members will simply know how you come to a solution, rather than try new, different solutions, and probably better solutions than yours. You may answer the questions what and why but must let the team solve the how question.

If you want to become an exceptional manager, you must ask valuable questions and teach, coach, and improve your teams’ skills. Please don’t give them solutions, but all the resources they might need to answer autonomously. If the people under your management shine (in)directly you will also shine.

As a new manager, don’t try to be the hero. Try to benefit from the value of your team perspectives to achieve the best for the people, project, and organization.

”Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man how to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”

Emotional challenges

Once you start working in a managerial position, you are likely to experience a panoply of emotions. It’s possible to be super happy after reaching a big goal and right after intense sadness from having to let someone go or fire someone. In the midst, you can feel episodes of anxiety or excitement. This roller coaster of emotions can lead new managers to doubt their capabilities, review the career change made, and even lead to depression/burnout. When a manager is out of control, it’s impossible to perform well and take care of their team.

Despite the above, this emotional whiplash is common, and with the accumulated experience and increased confidence, all these emotions are amenable. To solve them, you need to identify your emotions, be aware and accept that you are going through them. Then, try to identify the root cause for them and possible solutions. If needed, do not be afraid or ashamed to ask for help and speak out with someone about what you are dealing with emotional-wise.

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Handling Stress

Most of the time, stress is the root cause of emotional whiplash. Two of those sources of stress are the impostor syndrome and role strain. There are more, but I will focus on these two, common symptoms and possible solutions.

Impostor Syndrome

”Impostor syndrome refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. While this definition is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it has links to perfectionism and the social context.” - definition by Arlin Cuncic.

When becoming a manager, if you feel uncomfortable making decisions, pressure about the responsibility you have for other people or are afraid of making mistakes or making suggestions to someone that might be wrong, you probably are experiencing the Impostor Syndrome. It’s also common to attribute your success to external factors or luck instead of accepting that success came from your hard work.

If you go through this, don’t be afraid to show vulnerability to others, asking for help whenever necessary. Furthermore, admit your mistakes in from of others and be open-minded to other people’s perspectives. All this doesn’t show weakness but instead builds trust, credibility and makes you more approachable for your team. These solutions will make you feel better, more relaxed, and more engaged with your team.

Role Strain

”A situation caused by higher-than-expected demands placed on an individual performing a specific role that leads to difficulty or stress.” - definition by Sociology Dictionary.

You may have too much work or responsibilities without finding the time to do everything. You may have multiple information coming from different sources. You may have many topics to answer from too many people. You may have conflicting goals as improving the quality of the deliverables while reducing time to delivery and costs. These are symptoms of role strain, making you face doubtfulness, stress, and overload in your position. To solve these problems:

  1. Try to understand if you need someone working along with you to split responsibilities and tasks and prove that to upper management.
  2. Try to create regular uninterrupted time blocks throughout the week by locking time in the calendar for your tasks, turn-off notifications, and avoid any interruption. Respect it. Expose your imperfections. You won’t be an expert on everything, so find help from someone else.
  3. You probably will receive less positive feedback about different tasks you perform, but try to filter that feedback and don’t try to improve all those aspects, especially if you are under role strain.

The impostor syndrome and role strain are two common sources of stress at work. If you face different situations, remember: understand what you are feeling, understand where it’s coming from and seek help for solutions.

Self-neglect

In personal life, you can have stressful situations that can affect emotions and stress at work. You must take care of yourself and take defensive actions to avoid emotional stress before it happens. How?

  1. Don’t neglect your time off. Your brain and body need a break. During time offs, disconnect from the work. Spend time doing different activities that you find joy and happiness while doing.
  2. Don’t neglect your health. Follow a good exercise plan, be careful with what you eat, don’t skip meals, and have a good sleeping time. Deprivation of any of these can have multiple risks to your health.
  3. Don’t neglect your family and friends. Whenever you are under pressure, speak out with friends or family, be open about the problems and solve them right from the beginning, otherwise, you may find yourself in a loop of stress.

If you feel that you can’t do it anymore and can’t go through the stressful situations you are facing, do whatever it’s needed to solve it, even if that means to leave the new manager role or to leave the current company. Remember: nothing is worth your sanity, health, family, and friends. Ignore these will only put you closer to a collapse.

Final considerations

When I transitioned to a management position, the first months were full of new and different challenges and experiences. You will feel the same for the first few months; it’s normal, expected, and acceptable. With the roleplaying experience and by solving the first few challenges, you’ll gain confidence in your abilities, and you’ll do things that you might never think you’d be able to do. Please work with your team and not for them, ask a lot of questions, and take care of yourself in every way. In the end, remember that everything has a solution, however disruptive it may have to be. Everything you will learn in a management position will last with you forever - you will apply the knowledge throughout your career and personal life.

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