After thriving in an independent role in an organization for three years, Jacob was promoted to a leadership position. While he was excited for the new challenge, the changes in his relationships surprised him. People spoke to him differently, he wasn’t included in the same get-togethers, and he started to feel isolated. He had always maintained great relationships with his co-workers and had expected them to be supportive of his new role.
When Jacob called in to discuss his concerns, I asked for specific examples of how dynamics had shifted with his peers. He cited at least three times since his promotion when people went out socially after work and he had been excluded. In the past, he had always been part of the crew, and this camaraderie had been part of what made the company a great fit for him– that he could feel really comfortable working with people he genuinely liked.
Another source of frustration was that when he suggested ideas at meetings, people accepted what he said without pushing back. Jacob knew there were good thinkers with strong opinions on the team, and he had been hoping to stimulate dialogue. He didn’t understand why team members were suddenly silent where they had been so expressive before.
The biggest challenge stemmed from a very subtle change in everyday interactions. Jacob valued authenticity, and now that he was in a new role, people seemed less open with him. They spoke more formally, deferred to him even when he could tell they disagreed, and often seemed slightly aloof. Jacob joked, asked questions, and tried other ways to engage, but still felt isolated and disconnected.
In order to see the situation more objectively, we stepped back to look at it from the perspective of power, hierarchy, and social norms. We discussed how whenever someone moves through a hierarchical system in our culture, there is an inherent power dynamic that follows them through the continuum. Those dynamics bring out a mix of respect, fear, resentment and other emotions associated with a change in power. Since people are very social beings, we treat each other according to the emotions and thoughts we have about their position within the hierarchy.
In Jacob’s situation, he was expecting to be treated as he had been. But there was a new layer of fear and respect coming from his former peers because of his new position in the hierarchy. When we looked at it this way, the interactions he had been frustrated by began to make more sense. Deference could be seen as a sign of respect rather than withholding. Likewise, exclusion from social activities could be a way of allowing team members to let their hair down without fear of repercussion.
Looking at it from this point of view, I could hear Jacob’s perspective begin to shift, “Aha, so they didn’t speak up at the meeting with their own ideas because they assumed my suggestions were decisions. And they didn’t invite me to happy hour because they didn’t want to make a fool out of themselves in front of the boss or put me in a weird position. I honestly thought everyone was just being combative and aloof because of this change was somehow threatening, but I see there are other possibilities I hadn’t considered.”
Now that Jacob could see things from the perspective of his co-workers, he began to understand and have compassion for the position of the team. He could let go of his own story about what the change meant and focus on creating a dynamic that would bring the new team into healthier dialogue.
What Jacob Did
Jacob needed to clear the air with team members before they could transition into a better dynamic. He decided to have one on one authentic conversations with each team member addressing the elephant in the room – how the relationship between them had changed, and what they could expect moving forward. He wanted to set clear expectations and ground rules, so he prepared by making a list of communication guidelines he wanted the team to aspire to now that he was in charge.
Jacob conveyed these ground rules to each person over the course of a few weeks. He had a few top priorities.
- He wanted everyone to state their ideas and opinions openly in meetings. From his perspective, more minds working on something made the prospects of success stronger, so he wanted lots of input and was willing to advocate for ideas he thought were strong. And in turn, he would be open about his ideas as well, and he would be forthcoming when a decision was final to mark when discussion time was over.
- While the group was right to exclude him from the rambunctious happy hours, he wanted to be invited to any of the more mellow gatherings. It made him happy to be part of a strong team and to see people outside of the work setting.
- He didn’t want people to feel they had to censor their opinions around him so much in everyday conversations. So he would be clear about when an opinion seemed like it needed addressing in upper management, and if so, he would ask the person if they were okay with being a part of that, or if they preferred to be anonymous. That way, people could be free to talk without worrying that there would be unexpected personal implications for what they said.
Once these ground rules were set up, Jacob followed up by creating environments that would be conducive to meeting his expectations. He set up weekly meetings with small teams, where they could discuss ideas and not have the power dynamics present in the larger group setting. The small team would meet for a half hour alone, then he would join for the second half so that he was walking in when the ice was already broken and ideas were flowing and hashed out in a way that felt safe.
This helped open up dialog tremendously. People were not as intimidated in the small meeting settings, so they began to relax back into a more natural relationship with him and discuss ideas in a way that felt more authentic and effective. Jacob was in turn able to bounce ideas back and bring their consensus to upper management without everyone else being put on the spot.
He also brought a few concerns to management that he picked up on in informal conversations. By letting people know and not mentioning any names specifically, he was able to gain their trust and help move things forward that needed addressing.
Since the holiday season was approaching, Jacob hosted a work holiday party at his home. Almost everyone made it, and by that time, he was finally starting to feel that he was settling into a good place with everyone where he could be social in an appropriate way for his new role and also maintain confidence with his work position. Jacob was happy to see that he even got a few invitations to holiday gatherings from his team.
What Jacob Learned and How They Changed Because of It
Over the course of just a few months, Jacob was able to rethink his work relationships and set a new tone that worked with the new parameters imposed by the hierarchical work structure. He was able to maintain a sense of community and even genuine friendship with the team if they all stuck to the general guidelines they discussed.
The act of simply stepping out of his own mindset for a few minutes was enough to help him develop empathy for the team’s position and a strategy for negotiation a new working relationship.
True, Jacob could no longer vent to these friends as he had in the past. He needed to maintain the demeanor and behavior of someone in a leadership position, so his personal support system needed to come from a new source that wouldn’t jeopardize his position. And the team had to approach him with grievances differently now too. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t have open dialog and work together to solve issues. As long as they were able to work within the new framework for the relationship, there could be authentic interactions and candid conversations.
While Jacob found himself building a stronger support network in other places, he was happy to see that he could remain connected socially to his team. They gradually got used to his new position and warmed up to the change.
We naturally come into social structures or hierarchies with set expectations about how people behave within them. So when a friend or colleague changes position, it can turn our expectations on their head. This presents a great growth opportunity, and stepping into someone else’s shoes can be a powerful tool for helping us see how we can approach the situation in a fresh way.
Jacob’s promotion and the changes that took place were eye-opening for both him and the team. The growth process was not always comfortable, but they were all able to learn and develop a stronger professional relationship as a result of the change.
If you have recently changed positions or been promoted, and would like to discuss your situation, concerns and challenges, feel free to contact me. Or we’d love to hear your input in the comments!