You can set your watch by it.
The meeting introducing you as the new manager is barely over and you’re just trying out your new chair at a desk that doesn’t feel like yours yet, when someone pokes their head in and asks, “Do you have a minute?”
And so it begins.
The early phase of every new manager’s tenure (first-time or experienced) is filled with people feeling you out and attempting to bring their ideas, issues, or challenges to the forefront of your mind.
On the surface, this sounds good. You want to come off as approachable and concerned, and of course, in the earlier meeting, you promised an “open-door” style. You know good leaders listen, and you are determined to start out on the right foot.
Where the new manager, open-door, “I’m a listener” approach runs off the rails is when the drama begins to pour out of the mouths of your team members. The slow trickle of personal issues intermingled with everyone’s comments or ideas for the workplace quickly becomes a genuine drama storm if you let it.
Welcome to the drama storm.
I can’t quite explain why people who barely know you and now report to you, share personal information about themselves spontaneously, but it happens. A lot.
Overheard by first-time, first-day managers:
- I’m just doing this until the next best opportunity comes along.
- I’m not making enough money.
- Unless I can move up, I’m planning on leaving.
- The love triangle between (insert names) is just distracting for everyone.
- She was promoted to supervisor, but that should have been my role.
- We would be much more effective here if… .
- Your predecessor never listened. This is refreshing.
- I can’t work with ( ) or ( ). They don’t respect me.
- My soon-to-be ex just beat up my boyfriend, and now I have a restraining order. Also, he’s suing for child custody, and I can’t drive my car to work because my license is suspended pending the court date, and oh, I have a rare tropical disease that requires me to only work 5 hours per day and never on Fridays.
OK, the last one is a bit of a gross exaggeration, however, in comparing notes with many first-time managers, the arrival of the drama storm is inevitable. It’s imperative for you to prepare to redirect the attempts at drama-sharing back to business. Showing empathy is fine, but directing the dialog back to relevant, work issues is essential.
Defusing an Emerging Drama Storm
While you should choose your words, my counsel is to be polite, empathetic (in most circumstances) and firm as you redirect the discussion.
For the, I’m not in the right job; need to be promoted; can’t work with…drama: Part of my role as manager is to ensure that we are properly aligned with the right people in the right roles. I will explore and follow-thru on this issue during the upcoming period.
For the incredibly complicated personal drama: I empathize with your plight and hope you can get your life for your peace of mind. Our focus here must be on the workplace issues. What opportunities do you see to strengthen our team’s performance?
For volunteering the sordid details of others’ alleged transgressions: I have to interrupt you on this one. This line of dialog is not productive. Now, what ideas…?
For the, I can’t work with so and so: One of my unimpeachable values is that we all must treat each other with respect. It happens that sometimes we don’t personally care for a coworker. Nonetheless, it is everyone’s responsibility to focus on the work and engage respectfully.
For the career discussion: I understand it is my role to support the development and advancement of you and all of our team members. As part of my start-up, we will sit down and discuss your aspirations and begin to define a program to help you move in that direction.
The Impact of Your Strategy
You will be tested in many ways as a new manager. For this first test, you’ve established quickly that you are laser-focused on the business and that you understand your job. While some might view you as “cold” because you refuse to go into the weeds for their drama storms, most will simply get the message that you are no-nonsense and all business.
That’s not all bad.
Remember, commitment is commitment:
Of course, many of the statements above commit you to a course of action, ranging from reviewing workplace assignments to supporting professional development. These should never be just empty words, but rather firm commitments that you live up to quickly.
If you fail to prepare to redirect the drama back to business, you risk falling into a trap that bedevils too many first-time managers: allowing the personal problems of your employees to become your problems. Like a black hole that sucks in all of the energy in the vicinity, the drama-storm can become the focus of your time with employees if you let it. You cannot afford to get pulled in, or you risk derailing your start-up as a manager.
Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.