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What to Do When You Become Your Co-Workers' Boss

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Your competitor is an in-house candidate who, if you are selected, will be very disappointed, will report to you and may file a grievance. How would you handle the situation?—Anonymous

Even in the most collaborative organizations, employees sometimes compete with one another. Promotions, prestige and pay raises are scarce assets that people naturally compete over. After a winner is declared, some people may be sore losers who seek out retribution not only against the boss who did not promote them, but also against the person who won the competition. If you expect to be the winner, how can you manage the situation to reduce if not eliminate the likelihood of retribution?

Social comparison is an inherent part of human nature. We all compare ourselves to others, especially to “salient referents” who are close in age, education, position and ability. These social comparisons in a work setting can lead to an awkward dynamic when one person is promoted and others become their subordinates.

I know of an organization in which seven supervisors worked together for many years. They all were effective at their jobs and had similar experience, abilities and performance records. When their manager retired, one was promoted to manage the others. Within six months, this new manager left the organization because of sabotage tactics by the remaining six supervisors—his prior friends—who thought they deserved the position. Hiring the next manager from the outside led to few complaints and no sabotage, and the organization’s performance returned to its prior level.

This problem arises because of envy and because people tend to have an inflated view of their own capabilities. Envy is an emotion that can stimulate anger when someone desires what another possesses, like a recent promotion. The emotion is particularly strong and enduring when people perceive that they are as deserving, or even more so, than the salient referent. When promotions are based, at least in part, on subjective measures of performance, it is easy for people to assume that they were more deserving than the person promoted. The promotion is seen as unfair and playing favorites.

Who is to blame when a staff member is passed over for promotion? In the mind’s eye of those on the losing end, the answer is certainly not themselves because they believe favoritism must have been at play. To counter this injustice, envious workers often seek ways to get back at the organization, even if these actions are costly to themselves. They might shirk responsibilities, for instance, by taking it easy at work to compensate for the promotion they did not receive. Or they might engage in office politics (instead of working) to lobby to improve their position or to undermine the person recently promoted. Another common strategy is to sabotage their new manager.

Managing the situation is difficult, and there is no surefire way to resolve the situation so that everyone is better off. Nonetheless, there are three strategies that can help.

  1. Work with the hiring manager before making promotion decisions to remove subjective measures of performance. If objective measures are available, then people can compare, calibrate and correct their otherwise inflated view of their capabilities. Then, while those not promoted may still feel some envy, they are less likely to perceive the situation as unfair, which reduces shirking, political influencing and sabotage. Moreover, they may be more willing to find ways to improve themselves so that they can be promoted next time. This strategy, however, may not be feasible if the nature of the work precludes objective performance measures or influencing the manager to change the evaluation policy is impossible.
  2. Shape workers’ expectations so they believe that they, too, can be promoted soon. If employees expect that working hard will lead to promotion in the near term, then they are more likely to create value for the organization rather than destroy it. But creating these expectations hinges on the organization’s growth, so that more positions become open, and on a commitment to promote from within. Such policies encourage employees to make investments in training and development. Unfortunately, it is difficult to create such policies and expectations when most agencies are shrinking, not growing.
  3. Distance yourself from former peers. Envy is sparked because referents are salient, but this is changeable. A recently promoted manager can try to differentiate himself from salient referents. In essence, the trappings of position and constraints on socializing offer at least some expectation that the new manager is no longer a salient referent. But the longer prior relationships have lasted, the less likely this distancing will work. If the manager cannot distance himself, then another approach is to distance the envious worker. Respectfully helping that person find a position elsewhere can change the individual’s referent group. The strategy may not be feasible, however, if there is a large number of workers with similar frustrations—not all can be moved—or if workers exploit grievance procedures to stay in their position.

These strategies could prove difficult at best in this age of austerity in the federal government. But there is one other approach to consider. Seek out a promotion elsewhere in your agency. If you are promoted to a position in another group, envy is unlikely to be a problem. If you are a manager, help your best employees find positions in other groups and seek out quality applicants from outside your group. While it is difficult to see a good employee move on, you not only are helping that person succeed, but also the co-workers who didn’t get promoted.

Duce a mente (May you lead by thinking),

Jackson Nickerson

Jackson Nickerson is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Associate Dean and Director of the Brookings Executive Education, and a Senior Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. An award winning researcher and teacher, Jackson specializes in leadership, strategic and critical thinking, leading change, and innovation. While in a prior life he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he now advises government agencies, not-for profits, and for-profit businesses on ways to improve performance. He is the author of Leading Change in a Web 2.1 World.

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