It’s Lonely (and Stressful and Challenging and Rewarding) At the Top


A 2016 survey conducted by Robert Half Management Resources asked 2200 CFOs: “In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of becoming a manager for the first time?” Here are their responses:

– 32% said “Balancing individual job responsibilities with time spent overseeing others”.

– 19% replied “Supervising friends or former peers”.

– 17% felt the most difficult part was “Motivating the team”.

– 16% said “Prioritizing projects”.

– And another 16% answered “Meeting higher performance expectations”.

These goals, focused not on personal achievement but on being able to elicit high-quality work from others, require a complete change of orientation for any new manager. And they aren’t easy to attain. There’s a reason why people say “It’s lonely at the top”. Anyone who has never managed before often only thinks about the perks of the job while ignoring the downsides.

Here are a few of the reasons why it’s tough to be the boss.

  1. You have to do hard things (despite your personal feelings).

    Giving negative feedback, resolving conflicts, making unpopular decisions – managers have to do a lot of things that aren’t pleasant for anyone. Telling someone that they made a mistake or that their work isn’t up to par feels awful – whether you’re the manager or not. But effective leaders need to know how to do bite the bullet and do these things.

  1. When things go right, you share the spotlight.

    Managers are enablers, not executors. When a project your team works on is a smashing success, the lion’s share of the credit goes to them (as it should!). As the manager, your role is to be clapping on the sidelines rather than standing in the spotlight, and that can be hard to accept for people who’ve recently transitioned from a role as an individual contributor.

  1. But when things go wrong, you get the blame.

    When things go right, you give your team the credit. But when they go wrong, you’re the one who shoulders the blame. It doesn’t matter whether the problem was due to an employee’s mistake: when you’re the manager, you’re ultimately the person accountable. And you accept the blame and protect your team to the best of your ability.

  1. Management really can be a lonely endeavor.

    This is exactly what the expression “It’s lonely at the top” means. When you’re an individual member of a team, you have a built-in support system. You’re in a group with people who do more or less the same thing you do, or who at least have a deep understanding of your work. And this network is there when you need a sounding board, a brainstorm partner, or just someone to vent to.

But when you’re the manager of a team, by definition, there’s only one of you. There’s no one you can turn to when you’re stuck, or confused, or frustrated – and that can sometimes leave you feeling lonely. But it isn’t impossible to find support as a manager. The key word is “find.” As a manager, you have to intentionally seek out fellow leaders and actively build a support network.

Here are 10 tips from Robert Half to help new managers keep their cool:

  • Know where to go for help. Learn what resources, including external subject matter experts, are available to you and where you can turn with questions.
  • Identify a mentor. If there is no formal mentoring program, find another manager you can tap for advice or a star peer whose best attributes you want to model.
    • Make sure you have enough staff. Nobody can be successful without adequate support. Bring in new hires and interim professionals as needed.
  • Set expectations. Work with your superior to develop a 30-, 60- and 90-day plan. Communicate the goals to staff to ensure you have a shared vision of success.
  • Establish boundaries. Explain what you will expect from former peers and pals and what they can expect from you. The new relationship status is not easy for them either. Acknowledging it upfront is a great way to ease tension and uncertainty.
  • Use your calendar wisely. Schedule regular meetings with your direct reports, but also block off times to focus on your individual responsibilities.
  • Enter with a light hand. If you force too many changes or overburden staff, they may revolt. Take a collaborative approach, and let them have a say in decisions.
  • Find your style, but be flexible. Whenever possible, tailor your management style to each employee, and change tactics if something isn’t working.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. You want to succeed in the new job, but cut yourself some slack. If your staff sees you putting in earnest effort and working with them to improve the organization, they’ll rally around you.
  • Have fun. Bringing levity to your role makes you more likeable. Keeping the mood light also boosts morale and helps people stay poised under pressure.


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