“To attract followers a leader has to be many things to many people. The trick is to pull that off while remaining true to yourself.”
—Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones
This may be a chapter you read over and over. It’s not that this chapter is difficult to understand. Rather, the research reported here will be helpful to you as you negotiate future career promotions.
Almost every keynote or training event we do is followed by a question-and-answer (Q&A) period. It is through Q&A that we find ourselves being led into further research. Recently, a Baby Boomer manager was concerned that one of his Millennial managers was too hard on his direct reports (who were also Millennials). The Baby Boomer asked, “What’s that all about?”
One explanation is that Millennial managers perceive other Millennials much the same way that other managers perceive them; managers of all ages share many of the frustrations. We will go as far as to say that Millennial managers may be a little more critical of other members of their own age cohort than the managers in our prior studies.
Another possibility is that Millennial managers mimic senior managers as a means of distancing themselves from how Millennials are perceived. The behavior can be off-putting to the people they manage (who are likely former peers) and can appear strange to their bosses.
Obviously, the desire to please your boss is a good thing, but it could mutate into a weakness. When we were doing research for our first book, we found that about 1 in 5 Millennials are very comfortable initiating relationships with authority figures. The ability to initiate a conversation is a skill that allows many Millennials to stand out among their peers to management. If you think about it, it is easier to trust people with whom we can communicate than it is to trust those with whom we cannot. Therefore, when it comes to promoting someone, his or her ability to communicate plays a huge role in the decision. In no way are we downplaying technical skills or know-how; we are just emphasizing the importance of the ability to relate. Odds are if you are being scouted for or already promoted to management, you are not only highly skilled and technically smart but also comfortable with engaging authority figures. Your ability to build a relationship with peers and people older than you is an incredible asset. Once you have turned the heads of management, though, you may be in for one of the most challenging stages of your management career: finding your own identity as a manager and being true to yourself.
One of the more trying results of getting promoted into management is negotiating the tension between the desires to please the person who promoted you while still remaining true to yourself. The tension is normal, and the fact that you feel it is probably indicative of why you were promoted. A key to being true to yourself is having the ability to differentiate from your manager and peers in a healthy way. Sociologist Edwin Friedman defines differentiation as “the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from the surrounding togetherness pressures, to say ‘I’ when others are demanding ‘you’ and ‘we.’ It includes the capacity to take maximum responsibility for one’s own destiny and well-being.”1
Friedman outlines the primary characteristics of a well-differentiated person:2
A clear understanding of where I end and somebody else begins
Respect for the rights of others to be the way they are but refusing to let others intrude on my right to be the way I am
2. I have clarity about what I believe.
What am I certain about and what am I not so certain about
3. I have the courage to take a stand.
Being clear where I stand even in the face of disapproval
Capacity to stand firm in the face of strong reactions
4. I have the ability to stay on course.
Resolve to pursue a goal in the face of sabotage
5. I stay connected.
Resisting the impulse to attack or cut-off from those that are most reactive to me
Well-differentiated people recognize their dependence on their manager, but they rarely get reactionary in the face of disagreement, critical feedback, or even rejection. They are able to properly identify their emotions, self-manage, and reflect on the broader context of what is happening. Conversely, those who exemplify poor differentiation are so heavily dependent on the acceptance and approval of their managers that they quickly adapt what they think, say, and do in an effort to please the manager. The slang behavioral diagnosis is brown nose.
When you become a manager, there are two powerful and typically opposing forces—the forces for togetherness (with both your boss and your peers) and the forces for separateness (for being your own person). Let’s begin with the pressure we feel to agree with our superiors. Many young leaders use words like these to explain the tension of differentiation: “When it comes to having to make a difficult decision, it is like I have my boss on one shoulder and the manager I desire to be on the other. I don’t want to disappoint the voice of my boss, but I also don’t care to be someone I am not.” The two figures do not always have to be in conflict, but the inner dialogue can create enough stress to make you want to give up your managerial responsibility. Unfortunately, the inner tension can cause you to make decisions that are not true to you or believable to anyone else. We are not suggesting that you cease to use your boss as a sounding board or that you go rogue. It is always wise to ask yourself, “What would my manager do?” But when your inner voice is drowned out by the fear of disappointing your boss, you risk not being true to yourself or expressing your own voice.
Don’t get caught in the trap of always thinking you need to prove yourself. Warren Bennis offers a simple but profound observation about leadership in On Becoming a Leader: “Leaders don’t set out to be leaders per se, but rather to express themselves fully and freely. Instead of having an interest in proving themselves, leaders have an abiding interest in expressing themselves. The difference is crucial because it is the difference between being driven, as too many people are today, and leading, as too few people do today.”3 In other words, when you cease to express yourself, you cease to lead. Also, when you stop expressing your own voice, you run the risk of being perceived as inauthentic. Every once in a while, ask yourself, “Am I trying to prove something to my boss, or am I trying to express myself?” We in no way want to be dismissive of the value of presenting your credentials. There is a certain amount of “proving” that needs to be done early in your career, but if you get stuck there, you will never achieve your potential.
Okay, give yourself a break. No matter how awesome you are, eventually your manager is going to disagree with or dislike a decision you make. It is simply the natural order of things. If you put all of your energy into avoiding that fateful day, you run the risk of delaying your own development or expressing your own voice. History is littered with stories of students earning their rite of passage by being able to carve out an identity different from that of their teacher. Exercising your own voice can be very threatening because the process can strain or even sever the relationship between you and your manager or mentor.
Our research suggests that Millennials are very concerned about having a good relationship with authority figures—so much so that the details in a disagreement often get lost. Fearing the loss of the relationship takes over. The journey of knowing where you begin and your boss ends starts with being emotionally comfortable with disagreement.
Brace yourself. When you begin to get comfortable with disagreement, your boss or mentor may sense a change in the relationship with you. Studies on healthy mentoring relationships even have a name for it—the separation phase. The separation can be characterized by inner turmoil, anxiety, and feelings of loss. At the same time, the separation can be a catalyst for experiencing independence and autonomy.4 When a person feels less needed by you, consciously or subconsciously, she or he may work to sabotage your ability to be separate from them. You may be told things like, “You are not ready for the next level,” “You would not be here without my help,” or “You have changed.” As challenging as it may be, resist defending yourself or striking back. Though painful, a disagreement with someone you admire and respect can be positive—a sign that you are becoming self-differentiated and expressing your authentic self.
Ultimately you will reach the redefinition stage, where your relationship with the mentor is redefined to be more peer-like, and you both are able to express appreciation and gratitude for one another.5
The fear of having a disagreement with a boss creates anxiety, but when it comes to peer relationships, the forces for togetherness are even greater. The fear of alienating friends you manage can also be a liability to your development and effectiveness.
Accept it now. You were perceived as being different the minute you got promoted. One of the interview questions for our book was, “What was the hardest thing about transitioning into management?” The responses were overwhelmingly weighted toward a perceived change in relational dynamics with peers. Many young managers reported a sense of loss and loneliness when they moved into their new role. Some ceased to be invited to lunch or hang out after hours. Others talked about being told, “You are one of them now.” One person we interviewed was distraught when she discovered being unfriended on Facebook. Here are a few verbatim remarks in response to the question we asked regarding the difficulty of transitioning into management:
“The most difficult aspect of transitioning into management was getting respect from my former peers.”
“Getting the employees that I used to be on the same level with to see me as a superior instead of just a friend like before.”
“Managing the balance of friendship with professionalism.”
“People I was friends with wouldn’t listen to me when I told them to do something.”
“Going from the same level and being friends to now I am in charge of you for business.”
“People who were my former co-workers didn’t want to take orders or direction from me.”
“Making my coworkers understand that we were still friends but I was now their boss.”
The fact is that most young managers struggle with not being one of the “team” anymore and simultaneously not feeling like a peer with other managers at their level. The good news is that the tweener feeling will not last forever. Understanding how to negotiate the transition will make all the difference in the world in how quickly and successfully you move through the stage.
In addition to having a fear of disappointing your manager, more than likely you will also experience a fear of losing your friendships at work. Alert! It can be more difficult to self-differentiate from your friends at work than from your boss. The people with whom you used to commiserate, dream, and break the rules are the same people you will ultimately have to hold accountable. And, by the way, holding them accountable was a top-five challenge with managing peers. A successful transition to management will require you to have the ability to be separate from friends at work without losing connection with them. Being separate does not mean that you are better than or that you no longer care about them. One interviewee put it this way: “I think the hardest thing I have ever done is get my coworkers to understand that we were still friends but I was now their boss.” The caring part is what fuels your ability to stay connected in the face of criticism or even sabotage. Again, be prepared to hear statements intended to sabotage your separateness, such as “You are not the same,” “You have changed,” “You are full of yourself,” or “You are a brown nose.” And brace yourself for the next section.
Seriously, our enemies are far less effective at sabotaging us than our friends. We know of a promising graduate student who had the privilege of studying under a leading consultant. The consultant specialized in consulting for nonprofits. The professor was so taken by the abilities of his student that he started using her on some of his consultations. It was not long until the student was securing clients of her own. She eventually ventured outside the boundaries of the nonprofit world and started tending to clients like Microsoft. Her professor voiced his disappointment by telling her that he trained her to work in nonprofits, not corporate America. Her decision led to a strain in the relationship, but she had to follow her own path.
As weird as it sounds, it is generally not the people who are against us who hold us back in life. It is often the people who are most invested in us. Ironically, key relationships can become threatened when you start exploring your own path. This is true when it comes to relationships with parents, mentors, and bosses. It’s not always true, but many times these important people in our lives feel threatened in some way by our independence. We are not suggesting that you cease to listen to people you respect or you believe to have your best interest in mind. Just be prepared to experience the inner conflict that comes with exploring your own voice. The threat of losing support or sponsorship from an authority figure can be daunting. You have to think long term and not short term. In the short term, you may second-guess yourself or be tempted to acquiesce to what got you where you are now, but it could adversely affect your ability to get where you want to go.
For centuries, leaders have made bad decisions that were not in concert with their values or what they believed. Although there were clearly a few rotten eggs, most members of the leadership at Enron didn’t begin their careers with the intention of destroying the lives of innocent employees, cheating investors, or undermining the public’s confidence. Perhaps for a myriad of reasons, these people just could not resist the gravitational pull from the organization because once they got inside, it had more influence over them than they had over it.
There is a reason national political candidates try to present themselves as Washington outsiders. Has anyone ever run an election campaign based on being a Washington insider? Well, maybe. However, politicians who wish to be recognized as agents of change promote the perception that their views have not been influenced by the establishment. Innately, we resonate with the idea that real change comes from the outside. However, we are resigned to the fact that once a leader drinks the water in Washington, he or she becomes a pawn in the system. The skepticism is warranted but should not be limited to big nasty corporations and politicians. Religious, educational, and nonprofit institutions have exerted the same kind of force over their leaders. Ronald Heifetz explains, “A leader earns influence by adjusting to the expectation of followers.”6
It is not uncommon for the founder of a thriving business to take it public and then find that she has less control over the company than it had over her. Ultimately, her founding principles will meet with challenge, and she will have to give in, step down, or get out.
Again, the forces for togetherness can undermine anyone who seeks to self-differentiate (be separate). While it is easy to moralize the outcomes of poor differentiation, our point is for you to be aware that organizations can have greater power over you than you have over yourself.
Edwin Friedman argues that self-differentiation, if not the definition of leadership, is the key to leadership. True leaders are willing to challenge the status quo, risk being on the outside, and stick to their values.
Without the ability to self-differentiate, it is impossible to manage intense or complex relationships. It is far easier said than done, but learning how to self-differentiate does not happen overnight. Professionally speaking, for many, it is a process that unfolds over early and middle career development. For some, it may never happen, and they may be destined for a life of reacting to everyone and everything around them; being a great leader is not in their future.
Being true to one’s self is key to being true to others. In the next chapter, we will discuss the importance of being authentic.
1. Friedman, E. H. (1985). Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: Guilford Press, p. 27.
2. Friedman, E. (Producer), & Dawkins Productions. (Director). (2007). Reinventing leadership [DVD]. (Available Guilford Press, 370 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10001.) Notes retrieved from https://www.emu.edu/seminary/timothy/documents/FiveCharacteristics.pdf.
3. Bennis, W. G. (1991). On Becoming a Leader. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
4. Kram, K. E. (1983). Phases of the mentor relationship. Academy of Management Journal, 26(4), 608–625.
5. Kram, K. E. (1983). Phases of the mentor relationship. Academy of Management Journal, 26(4), 608–625.
6. Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership without Easy Answers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 17.