“In an organizational hierarchy every employee tends to rise or get promoted to his or her level of incompetence.” Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.
Mr. Peter describes what many of us have seen – or even experienced – in the workplace. People are promoted until they can no longer do the job they are assigned, and there they remain. In my conflict coaching practice I frequently work with people facing this type of challenge. I have a more optimistic outlook than Mr. Peter. The outcomes for these people need not be so negative as becoming stuck in a position for which one is unsuited.
Invariably, as employees move up the ladder, they have to deal with more people problems than technical problems, which is unfortunate because they were promoted on the strength of their technical ability! They are competent at the set of tasks they’re managing, but managing that set of tasks is much different than doing it. Conflict crops up, and this is where many managers need help. – with the people problems.
The conflicts that supervisors encounter could be anything from having difficulty managing a problem with a subordinate or someone at a parallel level to challenges helping one’s staff manage their own intra-staff conflicts. How can supervisors make sure they are prepared for handling the people problems that come up in every workplace?
- Realize that success at lower levels of the organization does not guarantee success in new promoted positions. That basic awareness is essential and allows one to grow into new performance parameters. What frequently happens is that we get promoted with every reason in the world to think we are going to be successful. We have the experience, skills, knowledge, and expertise. What we don’t always recognize is that the job we have been promoted into is very different than the ones we were doing previously, and very different than what our direct reports are doing. Success has a whole new set of criteria.
- Accept that it is the supervisor’s job to handle conflict. It is not uncommon to hear from new supervisors, “It’s not my job to help the team get along. It’s not my job to handhold this person or prop up this person’s ego or be a referee.” Well, that’s precisely your job! Acknowledging this is another key to success. It’s not so much that you have to resolve every squabble but you will need to show leadership rather than avoidance, resentment or become a cruel authoritarian. None of these demonstrate competence in your new position.
- See yourself as part of the solution. The reality is that the buck stops with you, as a supervisor. If you are not going to get involved, who is? Your own supervisor is not likely to want to become involved and will expect you to handle it on your own, or will not want to get involved because he/she is not good at handling people problems either! If you don’t take ownership of conflict management, you won’t see yourself as part of the solution. You will just see the problem in front of you. And you will likely see it grow and spread.
- Start looking at options. Once that hurdle is jumped and you own that it is your responsibility to manage people, and not just the technical tasks, then you can start to develop options for handling specific situations. Frequently, you have them on the tip of your tongue already. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was the resistance to believing you were responsible for helping manage the conflict that prevented you from implementing what are often obvious solutions.
With all this talk about “incompetence,” it is important to realize that though you may not be as skilled in managing your new position as you were in your last – you can get there. You can increase your level of competence and become adept at leading people and handling conflict. And then you’ll be promoted again…. When you really get stuck on how to approach a problem there are people who can help. Conflict Coaching is often the most effective place to start.