New boss needs a grip that is gentle but firm

Dear Joan:
Approximately six months ago, I moved from unit manager to another area of the company where I was "given a title" but no management responsibilities. My superior has recognized my leadership and management abilities and has asked me to assume some of his management responsibilities.

There is a wonderful ambiance in the unit and the employees work well as a team. However, many of them take extended lunch hours, spend a lot of time "chatting," and attend to personal details on company time. In the past, I've always told my employees to "use these privileges, but don't abuse them."

Up to this point, my manager has supervised all employees in our department and it appears he considers their behavior acceptable. However, what if my boss would leave and be replaced by someone who would not tolerate these actions? I fear I'd be criticized for not adequately managing the activities of my employees. It would be much easier for me to set the record straight now than two or three years down the line. On the other hand, I'm relatively new to the department and don't want to "crack the whip" unnecessarily. How would you handle this situation? Thanks, Joan!

My compliments to your manager for recognizing your leadership ability. You are smart to be sensitive and cautious about "cracking the whip" when you are so new and your work group is working so well as a team. But you also realize what can happen when the poor work habits of a few can erode the morale of others.

Let's take this situation apart and examine it. First, when you say you are taking over some of your boss's management responsibilities, do you mean you are acting as an "assistant supervisor"? If you are, and your boss is still acting as their primary boss (conducting their performance reviews etc.), you really aren't in a position to do anything. Since you refer to the group as "my employees," I'll assume you are their boss.

Within six short months, your boss has turned over some of his workload to you, which probably indicates that he has a great need for some assistance in this area. If he has been stretched thin, there is a good chance he has not been able to spend much time managing the group. Are you certain he considers their behavior acceptable? Are you sure he knows what's going on? If he does, perhaps he's hoping you will have more time than he did to manage the situation.

Your best bet is to discuss it with him. In his new role as your manager, his responsibility is to coach you regarding how to supervise your employees. He has the history of the people, he knows the production needs of the unit and the goals of the team.

Schedule a meeting to discuss his expectations of you and how he intends to measure your performance. Also ask for a short synopsis of each team member and his philosophy of leadership. During this meeting, you may get some insights into why the group has become lax in it's work habits. Say, "I'm very impressed with the team spirit of the group but I've been noticing that such and such has been happening regularly. What are your feelings about that? I certainly don't want to come down too hard when I'm so new. Yet I'm uncomfortable letting it continue. How would you approach this?"

Express your opinion honestly but listen carefully to determine his leadership style. If he is strongly opposed to your intervention, you may be wise to do nothing for now. However, I doubt he will; most experienced leaders know ignoring these things can cause problems later.

The issue is not: "...what if my boss would leave and be replaced by someone who would not tolerate these actions?" He has been replaced - by you. And you feel these employees are abusing these privileges. If you decide to remind your employees of the standards, do so sensitively. Perhaps a few gentle one-on-one reminders will do the trick. For example, "Steve, I was looking for you after lunch today but someone said you weren't back yet. I've noticed that a few times lately. I don't mind an occasional extended lunch but I'd prefer that you let me know when you need to take one."

How hard you push your standard depends on how productive the employees are and if they are professional employees (accountants, consultants, etc.) who manage their own projects. For example, if your group is meeting its goals and is willing to take work home and stay late when they need to, you may want to establish more flexible standards.

An important thing to remember is that once you've set a guideline for your employees to follow, you should expect them to conform. If you manage with a light but firm touch, your employees will be less likely to run to their former boss and complain. Getting him in your corner before you begin will assure a smooth transition for all of you.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
About Joan Lloyd
Joan Lloyd & Associates provide
FREE subscription to receive Joan's article by email

Email Joan to submit your question for consideration for publication, request permission to reprint an article for distribution, or for information about carrying Joan Lloyd's weekly column in your publication, or on your Internet or Intranet site. Visit to search an archive of more than 1700 of Joan's articles.
© Joan Lloyd & Associates, Inc.