Transformative Learning and First-Time Managers: How HRD Practitioners Can Help

Getting promoted is exciting, but making the transition to management is one of the most difficult challenges first-time managers face. Almost half of first-time managers fail. First-time managers have no managerial experience, unlike experienced managers, such as Chief Executive Officers (CEOs). Yet, even among CEOs, the failure rate is high.

Although this high turnover rate for experienced executives provides some indication of the challenges first-time managers face, the challenges first-time managers face occur with greater frequency for them than for more experienced executives.

First-time managers are given more responsibilities and may be placed in strategic positions in the organization. Organizations incur training, development, and recruitment costs in promoting or recruiting first-time managers. Yet, providing adequate support for first-time managers during their transition to management is not always a priority for organizations.

Transformative learning

The transition to management is the process of adapting to a managerial role following the promotion from an operational or specialist position, to that of a manager. This transition is a life-changing experience that impacts both the professional and personal lives of individuals and determines the future of their careers.

First-time managers are shaped by their transformational experiences of the first year that forge their leadership philosophies and styles in ways that may haunt or hobble them throughout their careers.

First-time managers may experience disorienting dilemmas that trigger transformative learning. Disorienting dilemmas are acute internal or external personal crises or experiences that cause individuals to question what they previously believed to be unquestionable.

Transformative learning is the process by which we transform our taken-for-granted frames of reference (meaning perspectives, habits of mind, mindsets) to make them more inclusive, discriminating, emotionally capable of change, and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove truer or justified to guide action.

Transformative learning is triggered by a disorienting dilemma that leads to critical self-reflection, discourse with others, and then to a perspective transformation which the individual acts upon.

Critical self-reflection is an assessment of one’s assumptions, beliefs, values, mode of questioning, and meaning perspectives. Meaning perspectives are our frames of reference or the lens through which we filter, engage, and interpret the world.

Dilemmas of First-time Managers

After the celebration and/or novelty of the promotion to management are over, first-time managers face the reality of the transition to management. First-time managers assume that their new position will give them more authority and autonomy, and the unreasonable demands of others will no longer burden them. Instead, some face dilemmas, including:

  • the realization that the job entails more responsibilities than anticipated
  • the realization that the job requires more learning than anticipated
  • unrealistic expectations from the boss
  • conflicting demands from others in the organization
  • changes in relationships with co-workers

These dilemmas could be disorienting and lead to learning.

More responsibilities

It is only on assuming their new role that first-time managers realize the magnitude of their responsibilities. Instead of wearing one hat as an individual contributor, they now have to wear seven hats changed several times a day:

  • Administration hat – organizing meetings, preparing reports, and interacting with other departments
  • Direction hat – teaching, coaching, promoting and innovating
  • Leadership hat – taking the lead
  • People hat –resolving people-related issues
  • Action hat – doing the hands-on work
  • High-anxiety hat – doing the challenging work
  • Business hat – putting it all together and working with the management team to achieve the organization’s objectives

So much more to learn

In making the transition to management, first-time managers realize that the knowledge and skills that caused them to succeed in their previous roles are inadequate for success in this new role. No amount of academic preparation and observation can adequately prepare someone to be a manager. Learning to manage involves experiential learning.

Experiential learning is “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” Experiential learning can be a “tension and conflict-filled process” for first-time managers as they make mistakes during the learning process.

Unrealistic expectations

Besides having to learn much more than anticipated, first-time managers are required to learn faster than anticipated. While it typically takes new managers six to 18 months to learn all of the parts of their new role, many first-time managers are expected to do so immediately.

First-time managers are also expected to be fully in charge from day one. However, taking charge takes time. Taking charge refers to “the process of learning and taking action that a manager goes through until he (or she) has mastered a new assignment in sufficient depth to be running the organization [or department] as well as resources and constraints allow.”

The taking-charge process occurs in five stages:

  • taking hold
  • immersion
  • reshaping
  • consolidating
  • refinement

The duration of each stage varies and has its own tasks, problems, and dilemmas.

Conflicting demands

One of the first things new managers discover is that their role is more demanding than they had anticipated. Being an individual contributor requires communicating with and meeting the demands of a manager unless the employee is in a customer-facing position and has to deal with customers.

Becoming a manager, however, involves communicating up, down, across, within, and outside of the organization, and meeting the demands of many stakeholders. The demands of these stakeholders can be conflicting in terms of the requests being made and the timeframes required for completion.

Changes in relationships

In asserting themselves in their new role, the first-time relationships managers have with various stakeholders in the organization change. Former peers fall into four categories:

  • leavers who quit for various reasons
  • testers who challenge first-time managers
  • passive resisters who test the patience of first-time managers
  • boosters who support first-time managers

Additionally, establishing themselves as the youngest or newest members of the management team may be a challenge for first-time managers especially those who have the huge job of replacing top-performing managers who were either promoted or left the organization.

Ways to lower the failure rate

Improve promotion process: Many organizations do not go through a very thorough process in promoting employees to management. Most organizations promote individuals whom they believe will become good managers based on their performance in specific fields. However, the best performers do not always become good managers. Being an individual contributor and being a manager requires different skills. Lack of basic management skills, such as the ability to manage people, leads to the failure of first-time managers.

Increase the learning curve: While the President of the United States gets 100 days to prove himself, first-time managers get 90 days. The actions first-time managers take during their first three months determine their success or failure. First-time managers fail by getting a poor appraisal from their boss, getting fired, or voluntarily resigning from their position when they realize that they cannot meet the requirements of the job.

Articulate clear expectations: Organizations often expect immediate success, expect magic and do not prepare the team sufficiently. First-time managers need clear job descriptions and performance objectives to succeed. They also need guidance from their manager. Organizations that unduly pressure first-time managers to take full charge from the first day cause them to make mistakes. Organizations that expect first-time managers to fix their faulty processes, outdated technologies immediately and political problems also blame first-time managers for lack of progress. Additionally, when organizations fail to prepare the team adequately, first-time managers face an uphill battle and sometimes resistance from their staff, which can lead to the failure of the first-time managers.

Better training: Organizations also fail to adequately prepare first-time managers for the new role when they curtail their training and development. Although training is a vital function for all organizations, human resource development (HRD) managers often encounter difficulties in defending their training budget with chief financial officers. HRD should be systematic with planned activities aimed at providing members of the organization with opportunities to learn the necessary skills to meet the demands of their current and future jobs. HRD is an important strategic approach for improving the productivity, efficiency, and profitability of organizations.

There are also personal reasons why first-time managers fail. First-time managers are prone to making mistakes because of human error, working under stressful conditions, incompetence, and poor ethical standards.

Sources of human errors include lack of attention, and decision making with inadequate information or based on systems error. First-time managers who work under stressful conditions tend to make more mistakes. The mistakes first-time managers make due to incompetence include errors about the job, in their relationships with their employees, in communicating, in handling problems, and in their management style.

Errors on the job are due to the lack of appropriate knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and not fully understanding what the job entails.

Given the high failure rate for first-time managers, HRD practitioners need to learn more about the underlying cause of this problem in their organizations. Are the failures of first-time managers due to personal reasons, or are they due to organizational shortcomings?

To decrease the rate of failure, HRD practitioners need to learn how the organization can provide adequate support for its first-time managers.

Source: Academy of Human Resource Development International Research Conference in the Americas:

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