Getting promoted to management brings some welcome benefits, from higher pay and perks to elevated status. After the congratulations are over, however, many new bosses ponder a more subtle change: Why don’t I have friends at the office anymore?
Tim Tolan first noticed it when happy hour rolled around after his first big promotion at a previous employer. As a vice president overseeing several of his former peers, he could see the parking lot from his new office. “I looked out my window Friday afternoon, and there went the gang,” he says. “I also had a view of my former friends every day as they’d leave for lunch.”
Co-workers’ barbecues and cookouts went on without him. “The flow of invitations came to an abrupt halt,” Mr. Tolan says. Conversations stopped when he entered a room. “The moment I walked in there was silence, like they’d seen the dead,” says Mr. Tolan, chief executive of the Tolan Group, a St. Augustine, Fla., health-care affiliate of the Sanford Rose executive-search network. “It was a little bit of a wake-up call.”
After a promotion earlier in his career, Tim Tolan said, invitations from some former peers at work ‘came to an abrupt halt.’ Photo: Erica Tolan
Moving into management can set off a seismic social shift in the office. Former friends turn distant. Old ways of relating to colleagues no longer work. New-manager training that most employers provide seldom helps in navigating the new social dynamics.
These challenges are increasingly common as millennial managers rise in the ranks. Keeping one’s balance requires changing how you relate to old friends, making new ones and exploring other sources of satisfaction in your work.
In the past five years, managers born in 1982 or later have been landing promotions twice as often as older leaders, says a study of 2,848 executives and managers at 14 companies, including Boeing, Johnson & Johnson, UPS and Verizon Communications. The study was conducted by the Conference Board, Development Dimensions International and RW2 Enterprises.
Many young managers sense a jarring loss of trust among former peers. Colleagues who have been passed over for promotion tend to feel less powerful, causing them to be hypersensitive to slights and missteps by a new boss, says Sebastien Brion, an associate management professor at the University of Navarra’s IESE Business School in Barcelona and lead author of a study on the topic.
Some new managers unwittingly heighten the tension by assuming the same attributes that earned them the promotion—self-confidence as individual contributors, and mastery of the skills needed in their field—will propel them to success as managers, says Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and author of “Insight,” a book about self-awareness. The resulting mindset, she says, can be intimidating to subordinates: “When I’m the boss, I have to know all the answers, I have to do everything myself and God forbid I show weakness.’”
Arrogance and overconfidence are among the most common reasons managers fail, the Conference Board study shows. “Feeling as if you have to know everything can create a barrier between you and your team,” says Patti Johnson, CEO of PeopleResults, a Dallas organizational-change consultant. What bosses actually need is the ability to inspire others, develop subordinates’ skills, and lead and manage change, the Conference Board study says.
Trying to remain one of the gang also is a mistake, Ms. Johnson says. A co-worker at a previous employer decided after being promoted, “I’m still going to go out drinking with everybody,” Ms. Johnson says. Not all his subordinates were included, however, and those he left out felt slighted. “You can be friends with people, but you have to set some boundaries,” she says.
That’s best done in a face-to-face conversation. “Name the change,” says Mikaela Kiner, CEO of Reverb, a Seattle leadership-development firm. Talk with friends who have suddenly become subordinates about changes in behavior required by your new role, such as having lunch together less often. And mention what you want to preserve, she says. “You might say, ‘I really appreciate the feedback and advice you give me, and I don’t want that to stop.’ ”
Another hazard: The distance between a newly promoted boss and employees can make subordinates afraid to say what they think, Dr. Eurich says. To avoid getting stuck in an echo chamber, managers often must go out of their way to solicit differing viewpoints.
To get the conversation going, new bosses need to be honest about what they don’t know, Ms. Johnson says. “No one person is going to have all the answers. Let people in. Be open, and say, ‘Hey guys, let’s figure this out together. What has worked for you?’” she says.
Most employers train new managers in avoiding workplace harassment and discrimination, and some pay for optional online courses in motivating employees and team-building. But many new managers feel too pressed for time to enroll, according to a recent survey of 218 first-time managers ages 27 to 32 by LeadX, a training provider.
Susan Packard, a former HGTV executive, says managers can sometimes benefit from finding a supportive person to whom they can vent. Photo: John Black Photography
Peers may distance themselves too, widening the gulf. Susan Packard, former COO of HGTV and a longtime cable-industry executive, recalls a former colleague contradicting her in meetings and rolling his eyes as she spoke after she was promoted to a job at his level. She tried asking him to coffee or lunch and requesting his advice in his areas of strength, but he still didn’t warm up, she says. “It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d said, ‘I’ll wash your car every Friday.’ It just wasn’t going to happen,” Ms. Packard says.
She recommends finding a download partner—a person you can call for support when you need to vent. Also, look for other sources of meaning in your work, says Ms. Packard, author of “Fully Human,” a book about building emotional fitness at work.
The sense of power that new managers gain can offset the cold shoulder from colleagues, a 2015 study says.
Mr. Tolan, the executive-search executive, says he allayed his initial feelings of isolation after his promotion by resolving to meet someone new in his industry every week. He also made a point of getting better acquainted with colleagues on the executive team.
Both moves helped him focus on long-term career goals, and fostered a comforting sense of accomplishment.
SOCIAL SHIFTS AT THE OFFICE AFTER A PROMOTION
Set boundaries on friendships to avoid perceptions of favoritism
Talk with friends on your team about how your promotion will affect the relationship
Find a confidant outside your department to give emotional support if needed
Use your newfound power to set new career goals and seek out other sources of satisfaction.
Pretend your promotion won’t affect social relationships in the office
Expect to be invited to every happy hour, lunch and barbecue as you were in the past.
Assume the same skills that earned you the promotion will make you a success as a manager
Try to look as if you know all the answers and appear strong at all times.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at email@example.com