Q: I've just been promoted to head of department. I'm pleased, of course, but it means several people who are older than me now have to report to me. I'm afraid that they'll resent me or ignore my authority. How should I handle them?
A: You have a delicate balancing act to perform between the need to establish your authority reasonably rapidly and the need to remain on good terms with your former peers and those who are older than you.
Some would say you should just go ahead and enforce your authority and sort out any bruised sensibilities later on, because, after all, you've been appointed to do a job, not to win a popularity contest. If others don't like it, they can move somewhere else. But experience has shown that those who rush to impose control in the name of instant productivity usually create the opposite effect: smouldering hostility or full defiance.
Nevertheless, it's important that you successfully communicate who is now in charge and has responsibility for them and the quality of their output. A young manager I met recently was in a worse position than you, since her appointment had been opposed by peers closest to her in age and experience. Aware of their opposition, she gave her detractors a wide berth and failed to establish an effective relationship with them. As a result, her ability to manage the younger members of her team was diminished. They could see that her polite entreaties to improve performance were ignored by the senior team members, and mostly followed suit. By the time we met, she'd decided that management was not for her and she was regretting her promotion.
So how do you walk this tightrope? A good place to start is to stand back from the personalities to consider what kind of manager your department requires to perform at its best. What are the expectations of the organisation? What kind of manager do you want to be? And what do you care about in your working life? Once you have got these broad parameters, you'll be able to gain a sense of direction for your management journey and some values to steer by. By comparing how things are done now with what's required, you can identify your priorities.
Next, consider your team members and their capabilities. Who might best help you to tackle your priorities? Who has knowledge or experience that would be of use? And who has a positive attitude, though they may lack experience? You will be more successful if you vary your approach according to personality and competence, rather than applying a blanket style that ignores different ages and stages.
So, for example, you might single out one or two senior team members to help you tackle a task that requires careful handling. Outline the result you're looking for and ask them for their suggestions on how to achieve it. Listen carefully to what they say, ask questions if you need clarification, and thank them for their input. Then decide what should be done and who should do it. When you announce your decision, be sure to give credit to those who initiated an idea and, when the task is complete, publicly acknowledge their contribution. Showing respect for your senior people and valuing their opinion will do a lot to assuage any irritation with your relative youth and newly acquired seniority.
A good leader seeks input from relevant, qualified people and then makes up his or her mind. When you hold a different opinion or need to make a new direction clear to others, do so personally and confidently, rather than by hiding behind an e-mail. Without being defensive, explain what you've decided and, briefly, your rationale. If you meet resistance, offer to speak to individuals one-to-one on another occasion.
As a good manager, you'll begin to recognise the different styles called for in varied situations. In an emergency, it's appropriate to be directive - if the building is on fire, sitting round discussing the flames is hardly going to help. But in other circumstances the collegiate approach can be highly suitable, where the opinions of several people are sought and a consensus is reached.
Despite your careful handling, you may find some status-conscious people still resistant to the idea of you as their manager. Their own self-confidence is challenged and, to defend their sense of self-worth, they may be critical of you, to your face or behind your back. In the end, this is their problem. You have to be the best manager you can be, according to your own lights. - Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.