I HAD a conversation with a former student. We’ll call her Anne. Anne is in her mid-20s and was promoted about a year ago into her first managerial position.

Anne manages one person, a woman in her mid-40s. Let’s call her Susan. Oh, and Susan is best friends with Anne’s boss, Laura. Can you see that Anne might have a bit of a problem?

Any time Anne asks Susan to do something “different,” Susan runs to Laura. Laura typically sides with Susan, rendering Anne powerless.

Anne is, of course, literally in the middle of this trio and has little ability to get Susan to do anything Susan doesn’t want to do.

Recently, Laura’s boss, Ted, was talking with Anne. Over the past year or so he had occasionally asked Anne how things were going. Anne, being new and wanting to please, gave the requisite “fine” in response. Until this recent conversation. Ted probed a bit and Anne confessed what was going on and how frustrated she was. She said to me that she essentially unloaded on him.

And what was his response?

“I’m surprised it’s taken you this long to share this with me,” Ted said. “I’ve been expecting you to do so for over a year.”

It seems he knew there was a problem sticking Anne in the middle of Susan and Laura. Instead of preparing Anne for this situation, he basically threw her to the wolves. It was a sink-or-swim situation.

So for well over a year, Anne felt she was the problem. I’d say Ted was the problem.

He obviously had some employee issues that he chose not to deal with before hiring Anne. He didn’t prepare her for the situation, and didn’t coach her along the way.

I walked into a situation one time where there was a personnel issue. Once it was announced that I would be taking the new position, a person who had left the job a year or so before my arrival reached out to me. After offering her congratulations on being named to her former position, she said, “I’m sorry, but I left you with a problem.”

It turns out there was a person who had not been performing up to expectations for many years, but everyone looked the other way. Knowing that I would have high expectations for the person in this key position on my team, she was warning me, while also apologizing to me. Within weeks after beginning the new position, it was easy to see why there was a problem, so I dealt with it.

Why, oh why, do managers avoid dealing with performance issues? Or power plays in the work place? Or whatever is causing tension within the organization? It’s because it’s hard, and most of us avoid hard.

Back to Anne. I told her that Ted was a part of her problem and that she needed to expect him to help her. He should have addressed the problem before her arrival, but he was forced to address it now. I suggested that if Ted was unwilling to help, Anne should look for another job, as nothing was going to change.

And I also told her to call me when she needed to be reminded how terrific she is, and how to respond when Susan and Laura made her crazy. Study after study shows that the No. 1 reason good employees leave organizations is because of bad bosses.

What I don’t want to see is Anne getting so frustrated that she quits believing in herself. A first-time manager needs attention, and Anne hasn’t been taught how to be a manager. I did remind her, though, that she’s learning what not to do as a manager by watching Susan and Ted. As an optimist, I try to see the positive in tough situations. But this one made me angry. Why do we do this to young people, or to anyone promoted into a first managerial role?

Get our FredBiz Newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

Load comments