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ATD Blog

Lonely at the Top: How to Help New People Managers Step Into Leadership

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

With layoffs rampant and leadership structures in flux, thousands of workers are being promoted (with or without better titles and pay) into leadership positions. But just because people are promoted, doesn't mean they're ready.

In a January 2023 poll of 1,100 people, more than one in three managers (38.1 percent) believe they were promoted to a leadership role for reasons other than their leadership qualities. Only 28.7 percent believe they were promoted because they entered the job with extensive leadership experience.

Compounded with their lack of experience, more than half (52.1 percent) of respondents said their organizations didn’t provide sufficient training to prepare them for leadership. And when asked if leading people met their expectations, 63.3 percent of managers admitted leading people was more difficult than expected, with only 4.5 percent saying it was easier than expected.

Before entering their new roles, these employees excelled as individual contributors, focused on completing their to-do list of assignments. But as they move into people management positions, their to-do lists change drastically; now they’re tasked with solving complex interpersonal challenges. Without the proper skills and training, these new leaders struggle to help their teams and are more likely to be frustrated and unhappy themselves.

When asked which interpersonal situations managers found the most challenging, the top answers included:

  • Holding people accountable for bad behavior (19.4 percent)
  • Addressing poor performance (18.4 percent)
  • Resolving conflicts (12.3 percent)

And employees agree. When asked about the most challenging interpersonal situations their managers face, respondents’ top three choices were the same: holding people accountable, addressing poor performance, and resolving conflicts.


Holding people accountable is hard. Just because you have a leadership title doesn’t mean it’s easier to tell someone they must improve their performance or change their behavior. And yet leaders who know how to candidly and respectfully hold their peers accountable create trust, solve problems, and secure results. Leaders with the skills to hold their teams accountable and help people achieve their potential will gain confidence and find fulfillment in their roles.

Here are a few tips from Crucial Accountability and its companion course Crucial Conversations® for Accountability:

1. Confront the right problem. The biggest mistake people make is confronting the most painful or immediate issue and not the one that will yield the results they need. Before speaking up, ask yourself, “What problem do I want to resolve?”


2. Rein in emotions. We often tell ourselves a story about others’ real intent. These stories determine our emotional responses. Master communicators manage their emotions by examining, questioning, and rewriting their assumptions before speaking.

3. Master the first 30 seconds. Most people do everything wrong in the first “hazardous half-minute,” such as diving into the content and attacking the other person. Instead, show you care about the other person and their interests to disarm defensiveness and open dialogue.

4. Reveal natural consequences. The best way to get someone’s attention is to change their perspective. In a safe and non-threatening manner, give them a complete view of the consequences of their behavior.

5. Involve them in the solution. Ask them for their ideas and take their concerns seriously. People are far more likely to act when they’ve had a role in developing the action plan.

About the Author

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author of eight books, including the communication classic, Crucial Conversations. His whose work has been used by nearly half of the Forbes Global 2000 and has helped millions of people achieve better relationships and results. He cofounded Crucial Learning, one of the world’s most respected learning and organization development firms, offering courses in communication, performance, and leadership. Joseph is also the cofounder and current board chair of Unitus Labs, an international nonprofit that has helped more than 50 million people increase their self-reliance and provided capital arrangement services of more than $2 billion to some of the world’s most successful socially oriented ventures. Joseph also cofounded The Other Side Academy (TOSA), a residential school that teaches vocational and life skills to people with histories of crime, addiction, and homelessness.

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