Promoting a star employee into management seems like it should be an easy transition. After all, the new manager is already well-acquainted with the company, culture, product, executives and team. 

However, climbing the ladder from a rank-and-file employee to manager is an adjustment that takes time, self-reflection, patience, mentoring and training. What makes the jump especially challenging is that it often requires both a new mindset and a new skill set.

Often, new managers were standout employees because they were motivated self-starters who fulfilled their responsibilities quickly and well. Now those standouts, who were focused on individual achievement, must shift their attention toward the team’s performance and learn how to help others succeed. That can be a tall order for someone accustomed to getting the job done independently. Those new managers may have to acquire skills—patience, empathy and understanding—that they didn’t need before.

Creating a New Head Space

A common challenge among new managers is making the mental shift “from doing to enabling,” according to Emma Brudner, director of people operations at, a Boston-based company offering corporate travel management tools. 

“You’re doing very little execution yourself; instead, you’re enabling others to execute,” Brudner says. “That can be difficult if you’re someone who gets a charge out of crossing things off a to-do list. The work you do as a manager is ongoing and doesn’t lend itself as well to being checked off a list at the end of the day. Whenever I talk with people who are considering a move to management, I try to prompt reflection on how it will feel for them to move away from doing the work themselves to enabling others to do the work.”

Self-Doubt, Pushback, Jealousy 

It’s also common for first-time managers to experience doubt about their ability to handle the new role, says Paul White, Ph.D., president of Appreciation at Work and co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace (Northfield Publishing, 2019). 

Subordinates—especially if they were former peers—may question a new manager’s decisions and competence. This may be a particular problem if any of them applied for the new manager’s job. 

“There’s a strong possibility that there may be resentment or jealousy,” White says. “They may ask, ‘Why were they chosen? Was it based on ability or on an ‘in’ they had with those higher up?’ ”

New managers often have trouble delegating tasks “because [they think] it’s faster or will get done at a higher quality if they do it themselves,” Brudner says. 

“As a manager, your results are tied to the team’s collective impact,” she adds, “and if you get good at coaching and helping others expand their capacity, the team’s output is going to be greater than anything you could do on your own. It’s hard to watch someone struggle with a task the first time they do it, but that’s the way people learn.” 

‘You’re doing very little execution yourself; instead, you’re enabling others to execute.’
Emma Brudner

The former star employee may have worked well with little direction. But the demands of management may require the new manager to reach out for help, especially with new, unfamiliar administrative tasks that can be complicated and time-consuming. New managers must make autonomous decisions in situations that may be new to them: allocating a budget, writing performance reviews, hiring, disciplining a problem worker, or deciding who gets a raise and who doesn’t. 

“It’s critical to know when to ask for help, especially when there are opportunities for quick wins early on that will earn respect from peers and team,” says Anne Scanlon, chief people officer at SmartBear, a Somerville, Mass.-based company that helps businesses develop software. 

New managers will have to navigate new relationships, maybe with a new direct supervisor, other managers or vendors. “Getting to know each of these individuals—their personality, priorities and communication styles—will take time and emotional energy,” White says. 

Typically, new managers will have access to more information, such as employees’ salaries, company financial data and high-level discussions that are proprietary. 

That access “calls for different boundaries of what can and cannot be shared” with others, White says. “Where two colleagues maybe previously shared opinions and dialogued about work issues, at least some of these conversations may not be appropriate now.”

Navigating Relationships

Dealing with changes in relationships with former peers may be one of the most difficult aspects of becoming a new manager. 

“These relationships will change—either in reality or perception,” White says. “Detangling intertwined relationships … will require time and effort.”

White suggests that new managers set up a time to speak privately with each direct report about the new relationship, to discuss each other’s concerns and expectations. Also, as unexpected issues arise, a new manager may want to get counsel from someone who has been through the same experience. “Seek out someone who can give valuable input,” he says.

However, Brudner notes that being the former peer of one’s subordinates can work in a manager’s favor. 

“There’s automatic trust and empathy due to the fact that the manager has done the exact job of the now direct report,” she says, “and they have a camaraderie from having worked together that enables them to be more direct and honest with each other.”

Still, Scanlon notes, the power dynamic between the new manager and former peers is no longer equal. She says that any socializing outside the office should not include workplace discussions. The new manager should be professional outside the workplace and careful not to give preferential treatment to former friends on the team. 

“Some key points to consider are to make sure that both parties are respectful, mature and honest,” she says, “and that there are specific and appropriate boundaries.”

Emotional Intelligence

One way to develop beneficial relationships with both direct reports and supervisors is to hone emotional intelligence, a trait experts say is key to becoming a successful manager.

When people move into management, they “often continue doing what worked before, which was getting results at all costs,” says Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education who teaches leadership and emotional intelligence. “They’ve been so focused on individual achievement that it’s really hard to switch to focusing on collective achievement [for the] team. 

“That’s a sure way to fail as a manager,” continues the co-author of Becoming a Resonant Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2008). “Because as a manager, you get results through the people you manage. This requires a great deal of emotional intelligence.”

Managers Create Culture—For Better or Worse

Understanding EQ

People sometimes refer to emotional intelligence as EQ, like how we refer to intelligence as IQ. 

EQ is the “capacity to be aware of, manage and express our emotions and to be able to manage the emotions of others,” says Geri Grossman, president of My Executive Coach in Buffalo, N.Y.

“This involves a high level of self-awareness and empathy,” Grossman says. “Our level of EQ is influenced by our values, such as respect for others, empathy and compassion. Our beliefs, socialization and upbringing also influence our level of emotional intelligence.” 

Is EQ inherent? Something people are just born with?

There’s new research suggesting that “there is a definite connection between a person’s genetics and his or her ability to empathize with others,” Grossman says. “Empathy is a significant EQ skill, and leaders with empathy are able to attune to a wide range of emotional signals. Such leaders listen attentively and can grasp the other person’s perspective. Empathy in the workplace enables a manager or leader to be able to get along well with people of diverse backgrounds and different cultures.”

There may also be environmental factors that contribute to EQ, she says. 

“Organizations that include values in their vision and mission statements tend to hire people who have higher EQ,” Grossman explains. “These organizations build a culture of values-based leadership and a culture of accountability. They value a manager’s ability to build trusting relationships, develop others, empathize and demonstrate optimism, and create an environment where people can do their best work. There’s a saying that IQ will get you the job, but EQ will help you to keep the job.”

Can EQ Be Taught? 

Training conditions must be right for new managers to develop EQ.

“One-shot presentations are not enough,” says Cary Cherniss, professor emeritus of organizational psychology and co-chair of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University. “Even a daylong workshop or a weekend retreat is usually insufficient. Developing EQ requires intense effort over a sustained period of time.”

A coach, whether from inside the company or not, is often helpful, she says. 

“It needs to be someone the new manager trusts,” says Cherniss, whose forthcoming book, Leading with Feeling: Nine Strategies of Emotionally Intelligent Leadership (Oxford University Press, 2020), uses as an example a case in which an outstanding leader coached a peer who was lacking in EQ.

An internal coach, Grossman says, should be “an established, credible and respected leader … who possesses the qualities of empathy, understanding and patience, and the payoff for acquiring behaviors that motivate and engage others is achieving high-performing and cohesive teams.”

Starting with an assessment is also a good idea, Cherniss says. The company’s HR or organizational development team can often administer assessments that will give the new manager powerful insight into his or her management strengths, as well as insight into challenges and behaviors that may hinder success. Some assessments will also identify the factors that motivate and engage the new manager. 

The individual “should be willing to be self-reflective [and] open to learning, practicing and experimenting with new strategies and behaviors that will support her management development, effectiveness and influence in the organization,” Grossman says.

The process is rarely quick and easy, McKee says. “I believe people can learn emotional intelligence, but only if they want to and only if they focus and put a lot of effort into it. And that’s because people who are self-aware, empathetic and have a positive outlook have developed those things over many years since they were children. So if we want to shift how we read people, we’re literally rewiring our brains.” 

Dana Wilkie is an online writer/editor for SHRM.

​We spoke with HR professionals about some common challenges that managers face and how to best remedy them.

Issue: Manager can’t handle both old and new responsibilities.

Employees promoted to management are often expected to continue some or all of their previous responsibilities, says Amanda Haddaway, SHRM-SCP, managing director of HR Answerbox in Woodsboro, Md.

Haddaway once helped a new manager in this situation. “Because he had so much work on his own plate, he forgot to have regular communication with his team,” she says. “Workers couldn’t get the information they needed to be successful, and he couldn’t figure out why they needed so much attention.”

He told her: “I don’t know why my team is so unhappy.”

She explained that the employees were unhappy because they weren’t receiving the guidance and direction they needed from him. The plan: He would meet one-on-one to find out each employee’s preferred communication method (e-mail, face-to-face, text, etc.) and how often he or she preferred to interact. He would also keep a log of his communications. This helped give him a better awareness of management and communication styles. His team reported being happy with the changes. 

Issue: Manager isn’t stepping up to the new role.

An assistant manager was promoted to midlevel management, responsible for a team of 20, including three other managers. No one was happy with him, recalls Ahren Exeter, an HR business partner for ZAGG Brands in Midvale, Utah. “The three managers said they couldn’t talk to him or approach him, and that he didn’t pull his weight; he was on his phone a lot.”

As the situation worsened, Exeter and the manager’s supervisor drew up a performance improvement plan. The manager agreed with the plan, which included meeting with a mentor with strong leadership skills every two weeks. “They already knew each other and had trust in one another already,” she says. 

Exeter left the mentoring to the leader she picked, as she knew his track record. ”As an HRBP [HR business partner], it was really my job to facilitate the mentorship and then allow them to go from there,” she says. “That particular leader was very well-liked and trusted, so that’s why we felt it was a good fit.”

In their sessions, Exeter told the manager that his team had an unflattering perception of him. She says she was very honest about the criticism. “If you avoid the truth or skirt around it when it comes to feedback, it doesn’t bode well. So we were brutally honest. In this particular instance, this manager was hurt by the feedback and wasn’t sure he agreed with it.” So Exeter discussed the idea that “perception is truth, and his employees perceived him that way [as unapproachable and a slacker], so that was their truth.” 

That helped the manager better understand the criticism and accept it. Mentoring and coming to terms with the critique ultimately paid off: In time, the managers under him told Exeter that he finally felt like part of the team to them. 

Exeter considers this case a great success. She has found that some managers resist when faced with this kind of criticism from the workers they supervise, and that typically doesn’t end well. “They usually won’t succeed,” she says, “because they don’t take their employees’ feedback seriously.”

Issue: Manager adopts a militant communication style. 

When an employee was suddenly promoted to supervisor, “he went into that role thinking the title change would bring him instant respect,” says Carole Robinson, a human resources generalist at Best Lighting Products in Pataskala, Ohio. “He didn’t know how to talk to employees and began barking orders.” The response was strong resistance.

“He had to start writing them up, and he was making hollow threats, such as a three-day suspension,” she recalls. “Within a week [his workers] wanted him gone, fired immediately.” 

The manager told Robinson that he didn’t understand why his team wouldn’t work with him. She drew on principles from Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (McGraw-Hill, 2012). The book, Robinson says, prompts supervisors to question why a normally responsible, rational employee might react negatively to a manager. “It helps remove the emotions from the events to get to the real issues,” she says. This supervisor needed to learn that the reaction he was getting from his staff was in direct response to his actions toward them. They felt disrespected, and their reaction was to be disrespectful.

Ultimately, he apologized and learned to explain to his team why he was asking them to do certain things. He also gave them permission to question his direction and open a dialogue to discuss it. Within two weeks the situation improved, Robinson says, and “I never saw any of [the complaining workers] again.”

Issue: Manager moves from friend to supervisor.

When one worker who was very friendly with many of his colleagues suddenly became their manager, he took the new role seriously, says Barbara Mitchell, a Washington, D.C., area speaker, consultant and author of The Essential HR Handbook (Red Wheel/Weiser, 2019). He pulled back immediately from friendly activities such as having lunch, a move that Mitchell thinks is wise, at least for a time. But in this case, the manager’s direct reports were offended by his behavior, feeling that their former pal now thought of himself as better than they are. 

Mitchell suggested the manager tell his employees that he still valued their relationships, but those friendships now had to be different for a while. He had to address the workers’ hurt feelings. Once the employees realized it wasn’t personal, things improved. He told them, “My role here as a manager is to support you in the work you’re doing and ensure you’re recognized within the organization. And I’ll have your back.”

Kathleen Doheny is a freelance writer based in Burbank, Calif. 


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