Koan #17: Learning To Be Alone

We usually send the situation in one newsletter and results in a following newsletter. Here the situations and results are copied verbatim into one post. Hence, when it says 'you' - it means the subscribers who voted in newsletter, not readers of this archive.
This situation was published in the 24 May 2021 newsletter.


You were recently promoted and transitioned from being an individual contributor within a team to leading that team, and you are finding it tough. You are now making some unpopular decisions and feeling isolated as your social group of peers are now your direct reports, and you sense that mistrust and resentment are building. What would you do?

Option A - Speak to your line manager about how you are feeling, and ask for some advice about how they transitioned into a management role for some ideas.

Option B - Seek support and companionship from someone else as a mentor, perhaps from within the organisation, for example, a former colleague in a different team who has also been promoted.

Option C - Start a routine of a daily stand up with the team lead by you, with a social element to engage the team in more informal dialogue.

Option D - Organise an event for the whole team where you lay out your vision and try and build more of a team feeling with you have been leading the team for a month.


Being a manager can be a lonely job. As one subscriber said, and an option which we considered too, was that you accept that leadership can be a lonely position to be in so it pays to find ways to tackle isolation at the beginning of your management journey. That, however, does not equate to you being a lonely person. Once you become a leader or manager, people will see and treat you differently as you have a new role in their success. This might include withholding information or stretching the truth because they want to present the best version of themselves to you.

In this situation, you need a mentor. Someone to guide you through the transition who is trustworthy and who you can talk openly with who can help you make a plan for your own growth in the role. Your line manager may seem like the perfect candidate, as in Option A. They know your strengths, abilities and goals, and can give you specific feedback. However, the added familiarity which comes with mentoring may make it difficult to mix the two relationships; boss and mentor. Your boss is always your boss, whereas with a mentor you may be able to also discuss things happening outside of work which are linked to your current situation. As one subscriber said of choosing a mentor from within your organisation at a similar level, ‘beware of going down the road of complaining about one another’s reports’.

There is a chance that you could have a line manager who can act as boss and mentor, but we wouldn’t suggest you take that for granted and thus Option B would be the preferred option. A mentor who works in a different part of the organisation, or a different organisation, often sees you at your best as well as the bigger picture of your goals rather than the work you do every day. Therefore you are more likely to get positive reinforcement rather than constructive feedback. One subscriber gave an excellent summary of why talking to others works:

Speaking to others, to get their insight and support is more valuable than trying to buckle down and solve the problem yourself. It enables you to benefit from the experience of others, which may help you resolve your issue more effectively (and avoid the same mistake that they may have made) as well as giving you the opportunity to learn and grow.

This is exactly how we intended Koans can benefit our community too. Meta!

Just as building strong relationships with your team is important, it is also important to draw a distinction between structured useful time as their manager helping them to improve in their role versus a friendly chat over a coffee. Socials could work but should be well organised on a 1:1 basis or when done very informally e.g coffee break once a week. Options C and D are too formal and seem as if you are trying to be both pally and assert authority, which is unlikely to work, especially if you sense mistrust and resentment are building. In this situation you need to focus on yourself. As some of our subscribers commented, these may be good ideas for further down the line, once you have found some useful mentoring support.

You must re-evaluate when taking on any new role, and especially if it is in management. If you rely on work friendships for everything perhaps you need more time for yourself. In addition, if you focus too much on your team you will fall behind with your own work. If you do not focus on them enough you will not be seen as a competent leader who can build belonging in the team. Your first management role may be more isolating than before, but is a chance to learn new things and develop a great mentoring relationship.