The loneliness of the first-line manager

Photo of a teddy bear sitting on a gravel street, holding a sign saying LOOKING FOR A FRIEND.They (whoever “they” are) say that “it’s lonely at the top.” Referring, of course, to CEOs and company founders. The thinking is that these people at the top of the company hierarchy have no one to talk with about their challenges.

That may – or may not – be true.

But what I’ve heard, over and over again, from my clients, students, and readers, is that the recently-promoted manager is at least as lonely.

You’ve been promoted

Yay; you worked hard and you earned the recognition.

But now you might be managing the very same people with whom you were complaining about management just last week – and now you ARE management.

You have to figure out task assignment, delegation, how to deal with the chronically behind-on-deliverables employee, what it means to give someone feedback, how to deal with the budget, what has to happen in performance reviews, and … and … and.

If you’re lucky, you have a supportive boss who knows you need help to learn these new skills. But in most cases, the new manager is on their own, reluctant to ask the person who just promoted them for fear they’ll wonder whether that promotion was a mistake. And they can’t ask their fellow managers – who wants to appear clueless within the new peer group? And obviously there’s no recourse with your old team-mates, who may all be side-eyeing you at this point. Are you going to be one of those Jekyll-and-Hyde people who develop all sorts of weird managerial traits upon being promoted?

It’s lonely being a manager. You’re stuck between your team, who want a certain set of (perfectly reasonable) things, and your leadership, who want a very different set of (also presumably reasonable) things.

And all too often, you have to figure it all out on your own, or with minimal support.

It’s not fun. It’s lonely. And it’s hard. And there are probably days when you wish you’d turned that promotion down and stuck with what you know best and enjoy: the individual work.

I won’t tell you it will get better. I will tell you it can get better.

During the pandemic’s Great Resignation phase, a lot of managers resigned and chose not to take another management role. Who can blame them? The pandemic made management – already a tough job – even more difficult.

And let’s face it: there are quite a few people who are promoted into management who really don’t want to manage people. That is perfectly fine. The problem isn’t their lack of people-management ambitions; the problem is how few companies have non-management promotional opportunities.

But for those who do want to be managers and leaders, it can be a meaningful and rewarding experience. Knowing that you have people under your care, people whom you can guide and help to grow in their own careers, is both a significant responsibility and a tremendous gift.

Get the support you need

Just make sure you learn how. Management and leadership are like any complex skill: you need to learn, and while learning-by-doing is important, it’s even more important to learn good habits and practices before striking out on your own. Trial-and-error leadership often ends badly, with high costs to everyone’s wellbeing and to the company’s – and potentially the manager’s – bottom line.

Yes, management can be lonely

But it doesn’t have to be. And that starts by recognizing that you are not alone – that there are plenty of other first-line managers who feel the same way. Reach out. Find community. I know that can be hard, too (especially for introverts). But do it anyway. You and your team deserve for you to be not lonely.

If there’s interest, I could be talked into starting a free group for first-time managers to connect, communicate, commiserate (!), and learn from each other and, yes, from me too. Contact me and we’ll see what happens. And remember, too, that I have free resources and training options here on my website.