The downside of promotion
Neal had been competing for a promotion and had gotten it at last. Sharing the news with me during one of our coaching sessions, he wasn’t all that happy.
“Look what’s about to happen,” he said. He gave me a knowing look and said, “Olga. And Ashraf. I’m going to have to be their boss. They were hard enough to deal with when they were my peers!”
Olga had often come to Neal whispering about some conspiracy or other, trying to win him to her side. He saw her as self-serving and untrustworthy.
Ashraf talked anywhere people would listen. He often made public statements that were inaccurate or inappropriate, resulting in much drama. Neal felt he should be reined in.
I asked Neal, “What’s your biggest concern?”
“People are going to be upset. Not just Olga and Ashraf. There’s Ron. He has to be pissed – I beat him out for the job! I’m sure there are others, too.”
I nodded in sympathy. “And what’s your biggest concern about people being upset?”
“I just want to do the work. And there’s a lot of work to do. But if everyone’s upset, the work’s going to go to hell. I know this place. When people are upset, productivity goes down.”
“What’s your biggest concern about that?” I asked.
“How’s that going to look? I step into the role and productivity goes down?”
“I think it would look completely normal,” I said. “It’s a big change. It’s the ‘J’ curve. Things get worse before they get better. And people have feelings about it all. That’s normal.”
“Well, I don’t want it to be my normal,” he said, worried. “I want people to settle down and get to work.”
I shook my head. “If people are upset, I think you have to deal with it. If you don’t, it’s like you’re some avoidant 1950s dad who says everything is fine when the house is actually burning down. You lose your credibility. If people have feelings and are upset, address it.”
He considered, then asked, “Like in a group?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. What would that sound like?”
With humility, as if addressing people, he said, “Look, I get that you might be upset, and I’m happy to talk about it with you, but let’s get the work done, too.”
I nodded. “How do you think that sounds?”
“Not bad,” he said. “What do you think?”
“I agree – the basic message is not bad. It has an ‘and’ baked into it: it’s okay to be upset AND let’s also do the work. That’s helpful. If people are upset, do you think people will actually come and talk to you?”
He took a big breath in and smiled at me. “Those conversations are not my strong suit. You know that. If they do, what should I remember?”
I spoke slowly and ticked on my fingers. “Be curious, not defensive. Ask open-ended questions about their feelings. Ask them what they’d like you to do, then tell them what you’re willing to do.”
He gave a snort. “You make it sound easy!”
“It might not be easy but it is learnable. I learned it. It just takes practice. Be curious. Let them tell their story, then ask what they want you to do.”
“And then negotiate!” he said.
“For sure!” I replied. After a moment, I asked him, “What about Olga and Ashraf and Ron?”
“What about them?”
“They’re your former peers. Will you just talk to them as part of a group and leave it at that?”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” he said. “I think I need to talk to them one on one.”
“And say what?”
He looked up and thought. After a moment, he said, “Well, I guess there are some things I want them all to hear; ideas I have about leading the group. And there are some things I have to say that are specific to each of them.” He rolled his eyes. “Ugh! This is going to be so awkward.”
The anti-awkward solution
“Because I’m suddenly going to be responsible for their performance. I’m going to have to give them feedback. That’s going to be awkward!”
“What in particular?”
“Take Ashraf. He should have had a muzzle put on him a long time ago. But no one ever has. If I don’t step up to the plate and hold him accountable for shooting off his mouth I’m going to feel like a big hypocrite. But I have no idea if he’ll take that sort of feedback from me. Same with Olga.”
“The same how?” I asked.
“I don’t like how she plays on the team. I want her to start putting the team’s needs first. But I can’t imagine her changing.”
“Suppose it’s a year from now. You’ve been managing them all that time, and neither of them has changed in the way you want. What will happen?”
“I guess it’ll become part of their performance review.”
“Would that be okay with you?”
“To repeat myself – awkward!”
“Can I challenge you on that?” I asked.
“On feeling awkward?”
“Yes,” I said. “Look, I understand why you would feel awkward if you were still their peer.” I laughed. “That makes me think of when my older brother would babysit us. He could say whatever he wanted but it didn’t really matter. He wasn’t the parent. We weren’t going to listen to him. But it’s not like that with you, Neal. You’re not their peer anymore. You competed for this role and the organization has proclaimed that you are the most deserving. You deserve to be managing Olga and Ashraf and Ron. What’s awkward about deserving to be the boss?”
He looked at me and said, “I guess it’ll be awkward until I really feel deserving. I have to give myself permission to be the boss.”
That felt like a momentous learning. I said nothing.
After a long reflection, he said, “I guess there are two things I want to be sure to remember. The first one is clarity. You know, a year from now I want us all to be doing our work differently. That’s not going to happen unless I’m really clear about my vision. Clarity about the work is going to be crucial.”
“Can I throw in another idea relating to clarity?”
“Sure,” he said.
“I think it’s also important you be clear about why you’re changing the work. Why are you doing this? What’s the bigger picture? Tell them why a thousand times.”
He nodded, then picked up his pen and wrote. “That’s helpful. I want to have clarity about the work itself.” He underlined his note. “And clarity about why the work is important.” He wrote and underlined again. Then he rapped his pen. “You know what else?”
“I also want to be clear about how I’m going to measure their performance.” He wrote and drew another line. “I have to be clear with my feedback.”
“That won’t be awkward?” I said with a grin.
He smiled back. “Not if I feel deserving!”
“Excellent!” I asked, “You said there were two things you wanted to remember. Clarity was the first one. What’s the other?”
He twirled his pen. “My oldest sister used to babysit us. And most of the time it was fine. But, man, every now and then she just wasn’t fair. It was infuriating. She would bully us just because she had the power. So if these positions were reversed, like if Ron had gotten the job, I think that’s what I’d be worried about. Is he going to be fair? Is he going to abuse his power? That’s the second thing. Along with clarity, I want to be fair. I don’t want them to think I’m flexing my muscle just because I can.”
“How will you prove you’re being fair? Isn’t fair subjective from one person to the next?” I asked.
“I think fairness proves itself over time. Consistency is what makes something fair or not fair. Consistency and whether it’s appropriate for the situation. The pattern emerges over time.”
“Can you tolerate that ambiguity?”
“If it takes time for people to figure out if you’re fair and consistent and appropriate, they could be upset for quite a while. Can you tolerate that?”
“It won’t be fun,” he said, “but nothing lasts forever, right?”
“True. Feelings change.”
“Which reminds me of something else you and I have talked about,” he said.
“Not taking things personally. If I’m really deserving of this role – and I think I am – and if they’re upset about that, that’s actually about them. That’s where they are in their development. And it’s not like everyone is going to be upset. I’m sure there’ll be cheerleaders, too – people who’ll celebrate when my promotion gets announced. So the people who are upset? It’s not about me.”
He saw me smile.
“What?” he asked.
I said, “Well, if it’s not about you when people are upset, then it’s also not about you when they celebrate.”
He laughed heartily. “Touché!”
Neal and I stayed in touch after the coaching ended. Dealing with people’s feelings, plus being clear and fair, helped him personify The Look & Sound of Leadership.