Workplace Doctor: How do I encourage new manager to 'let go'?

sufficient support structures need to be in place for a positive outcome on a personal, team and organisation level

epa06546231 Members of Malaysia's Mahmeri tribe march along to the sea to pray for their ancestors during a thanksgiving ceremony in Pulau Carey, Kelang near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 20 February 2018. The thanksgiving ceremony is to appease the sea spirits on the seabed of Malacca Straits during low tide. They marched from their village to the sea along with their shaman to perform ritual food offerings to seek blessing and protection of their seafaring ancestors.  EPA/AHMAD YUSNI
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I work in IT and a team member was recently promoted to manager after proving well capable of taking on the new position and responsibility. However, as manager he seems incapable of letting go of the operations he undertook that actually got him promoted and his replacement is frequently left “twiddling his thumbs”. I feel the newly promoted manager should let go of the projects he was involved in and delegate to the team and specifically his replacement. How can I bring this up?

DG, Dubai

You are highlighting one of the most frequent and profound challenges that managers and leaders face when transitioning into more senior positions.  "Letting go" as a process is not that simple, and if it is not carefully managed, it can lead to serious career-derailing outcomes.

Transitioning from a technical, functional role into a management position for the first time, as in the scenario you have described, requires a significant shift and recalibration of one’s skills, focus and perspectives. It calls for a reframe of peer relationships and a change in mindset, with a shift away from your own skills and success to that of your team’s. These critical career transitions are fraught with many pitfalls and dangerous hazards, and have therefore been the focus of many leadership researchers and authors, who have tried to provide suitable road maps to help managers successfully navigate these complex labyrinths.

Most notable was William Bridges, an American author and organisation consultant, who suggested that these transitions are essentially a psychological process of adapting to the necessary change. His process comprises of three phases: letting go of the past; the "neutral zone" - where the past is gone but the new isn't fully present; and making the new beginning. Although Bridges’ work was set within a contemporary, modern-day organisation context, his transition inspiration was rooted in ancient tribal cultures and traditions. Most tribes' very survival was largely dependent on their ability to initiate their youth, so that they could transition into mature and responsible adults. Here, too, the initiation process started with a letting go phase, helping young men understand what was ending in their lives in order to make way for their new adult roles and responsibilities within the tribe. An African proverb clearly illustrates the importance of this process – "an uninitiated youth will burn down his village to keep himself warm".

Across every organisation, team leaders are instrumental in establishing the organisational culture and transmitting strategy into operational achievement. As such, leaders’ performance is critical to organisational success – yet many organisations lack support in preparing leaders for their new roles. A recent Penna poll of 120 senior HR professionals found that 80 per cent of respondents believed their organisation's leaders are drawn from their professional and technical ranks. At the same time, less than 20 per cent believed that there was a robust and effective process in place to transition staff into such leadership roles. It is therefore important that organisations have appropriate support structures to help managers with this transition.

How may you personally be able to bring this up with the new manager? Sharing your observations with this individual in a diplomatic and supportive way will help to create awareness of their actions and the resulting impact it is having. Good communication and listening skills from your side can enable the person to acknowledge what he/she may be losing in this process, and provide insights of how you can support them in mentally moving on. Consider how you may be able to help him/her develop their new identity and discover a new sense of purpose that will move the change process along successfully? Within the organisation, think about the resources that are available to you to best support this person or alternatively, call on others to help you do this.

Doctor’s prescription:

For a successful transition into their new role, it is vital that this person acquires the necessary skillsets. For this to happen, it is important for him/her to be made aware of both the reality of the current situation and the requirements for the future. Furthermore, sufficient support structures need to be in place for a positive outcome on a personal, team and organisation level.