I first encountered the concept of a manager’s shadow at a seminar I attended in Boston some years ago. The presenter — a female corrections officer whose name, but not her message, I’ve long forgotten — was recounting the evolution of her professional self-image.

She said she had chosen a career in criminal justice because of her passion for rehabilitation and her desire to keep first time offenders from becoming chronic repeaters. Her early work was heavily weighted towards counseling and she loved the feeling of being able to help others stay on the right side of the law.

Things changed for her later in her career when she accepted a management position in a state correctional institution. In the eyes of the inmates, she was no longer a counselor sent there to help. The shadow she cast as she walked among the prisoners was that of a jailer, a self-image with which she was profoundly uncomfortable. It took some time and a lot of adjustment, she said, before she could accept her new shadow; one of punitive authority.

As designated authority figures, all managers cast an imposing shadow of their own. Whether you like it or not, and whatever your self-image, your subordinates, colleagues, and superiors will form their own views of you in your managerial role.

Adjusting to the shadow of an authority figure is especially difficult for those managers who see themselves as essentially benign, friendly, non-threatening souls. This is not how most of us see authority figures — especially those whose jobs involve hiring, directing, evaluating, criticizing, disciplining, and sometimes firing others – and it is almost certain your subordinates will not share your warm and fuzzy self-perception. Accepting the imposing shadow you cast as a manager is important because the faster you do, the faster you will be able to successfully make three important behavioral adjustments a person in a management position must make.

First, forming new, and maintaining old, relationships is often challenging once you become a manager. This is especially true if an old friend is now a subordinate. Professional ethics for all managers dictate that they avoid potential conflicts of interest that may compromise the exercise of their authority. Many organizations have established strict rules that define the acceptable parameters of workplace relationships for their managers. In addition, subordinates are generally quick to spot management behavior that can be interpreted — correctly or not — as favoritism and some can easily misinterpret interactions that seem ambiguous as to intent. Getting your relationships right as a manager requires deliberate, purposeful thought and consistency.

Second, being a manager means your simply must watch what you say. Comments – especially about people – that might once have seemed harmless are likely to now be out-of-bounds. You will have confidences to keep and information that can not be shared.  Moreover, you will find as an authority figure that your audience will generally give what you say considerable weight. Thus, having your facts straight and separating what you know from your opinions or simply what you think, becomes critical if you are not to mislead.

I was one of those executive types who frequently thought out loud. I loved to float ideas as trial balloons just to see how others would respond. More than once I was surprised to find that a trial balloon of mine had been interpreted as a decision to act, requiring that I call a halt to something before any harm was done. Subordinates and others often hear what they want to hear. Thus the best managers are usually careful and purposeful when they speak.

Finally, becoming a manager means joining a team; your organization’s management team. Like it or not, when you speak or act, you are seen as representing the team. Or to put this another way: while you once may have thought things would get better at your place of work if it were not for THEM (management), in the eyes of your subordinates and others now you are THEM.

Managers who bad-mouth other managers and management in general, undercut the legitimate management authority of their organization and gradually weaken their own authority in the eyes of their subordinates. Attempting to consistently stand apart from the management team of your organization, raises serious questions about whether you have the clout and influence needed to represent your subordinates when it matters. Most subordinates want their boss to be a player not a critic.

There are times when being part of the management team is tough, especially when you must explain and support a decision you personally opposed. But sabotage or resistance is unprofessional and harmful to organizational success. In these situations, as I often tell my workshop participants, the best managers understand they have only two choices: support the decision or walk.

Categories: Managing & Leading, Managing People, Self-Management

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