Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


Q: I've just started in a new company with a job that's a big step up from my previous role. My new responsibilities include managing other staff and overseeing various department budgets. I'm not sure I'm up to the task. I feel my new employer may have overestimated me. Should I speak to him about it, or is there another way to deal with the problem?

A: Don't underestimate the size of the step you've just taken. For years, you've been responsible only for yourself; now, suddenly, you're responsible for others as well. This is probably the biggest and most disconcerting change of circumstance you'll ever experience in your working life, so it's not in the least surprising that self-doubt has moved in. Indeed, you'd have to be pretty insensitive not to feel any inner wobblies.

Your great good luck is that you're not only in a new job, you're in a new company as well, so at least you don't have to feel your way into this new role in front of the unforgiving eyes of all-too-familiar friends and colleagues. Cling on to this fact. You may be acutely aware of your own uncertainties, but nobody else will - unless, that is, you make your self-doubt public. Remember, too, that there's an important distinction between incompetence and inexperience. Incompetence in people is probably there for all time; inexperience corrects itself automatically, often very quickly.

I doubt if your new employer has overestimated you, but he'll certainly be aware of your inexperience. He'll want you to succeed (after all, he chose you) and will give you time to do so. So whatever you do, don't dump your doubts all over him; there's little if anything he could do to help and it would seriously, and perhaps permanently, undermine his confidence in you.

But don't hesitate to ask his advice on specific issues where you feel your inevitable and totally excusable inexperience makes you vulnerable.

That is the action of a confident, competent person - which, I'm prepared to bet, is precisely what you'll discover yourself to be within a remarkably short space of time. Good luck.


Q: As manager of a medium-sized IT consultancy, I am faced with a large taskload and lots of decisions to make every day. But I can't seem to delegate anything to my staff. If I ask them to take some work on, they either shy away from it or interrupt me for my advice or approval so often that I might as well have done the job myself. Any idea what I can do?

A: I may be doing you a grave injustice, but the likeliest explanation for all this is your own management style.

It's true that some people shy away from responsibility, but I find it extraordinary that every single member of your team should feel this way. Mostly, people bleat about the opposite, bitterly complaining that they're never allowed out on their own, never encouraged to pick up the ball and run with it. And here you are with a bunch of presumably able people, every single one of whom apparently chucks the ball straight back at you. I can't help feeling that you, as the common factor, need to look to yourself.

There's a management style based on what is called 'the presumption of competence'. It means that managers go out of their way to exhibit confidence in their staff (sometimes rather more that they actually feel). They give each of their staff a clearly defined task and then consciously leave them alone for long periods of unsupervised time. And when the task is completed, they resist the immediate temptation to pounce on any minor imperfections. Only when each achievement has been roundly recognised and proper praise bestowed is any necessary final editing undertaken.

That way - trusted, involved, encouraged and rewarded - people become more and more responsible, more and more self-disciplined, more and more capable of taking on ever more onerous roles. The virtuous circle is complete.

I suspect you operate very differently: you pretend to delegate but never let your people get on with things. You look over their shoulders, criticise their progress, suggest alternative ways of doing things. In other words, you exhibit profound mistrust; you're working on the presumption of incompetence.

Think back on your own working life. If your first boss had behaved as I'm accusing you of behaving, wouldn't you have reacted in exactly the manner you describe in your question? So hold your tongue, hold your breath, exhibit inhuman levels of trust and restraint ... and give it time.


Q: One of my colleagues is in a real state - always arriving late, looking unkempt, bloodshot eyes, having problems with really simple tasks. One day I found her in the ladies' snorting half of Bolivia up her nose. When I asked her about it, she admitted she'd developed a cocaine addiction over the past few months. Last week, my boss asked me to find out what was wrong with her. Should I just tell him the truth, and probably get her sacked, or do I cover for her?

A: You must tell him the truth. Then between you, with her family if possible, you must see that your colleague gets help. To attempt to cover would inevitably fail, and do her a huge disservice into the bargain. You won't be popular but you will be right.

Jeremy Bullmore, former chairman of J Walter Thompson, is now a director of Guardian Media Group and WPP. Please address your problems to him at: Management Today, 174 Hammersmith Road, London W6 7JP. Or e-mail: management.today@haynet.com Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime