Why Certain Managers Thrive in Tough New Jobs While Others Get Fed Up

Why Certain Managers Thrive in Tough New Jobs While Others Get Fed Up
Author: Yuntao Dong (hbr.org)

Career development is supposed to keep young managers engaged and motivated, but sometimes it backfires, prompting them to start looking for an exit from the company. That’s because the new responsibilities that facilitate on-the-job learning can take them well beyond their comfort zones, making them feel frustrated, angry, or fearful of failure. Yet certain managers seem to thrive in this kind of adversity. How can you predict who will be turned off by an unpleasant career-development move and who will react positively? Emotional intelligence has something to do with it. In a study of managers in a part-time MBA program, we found that a developmental experience is more likely to increase turnover intentions for managers with low EQ, because they’re less able to manage unpleasant feelings. There’s no such effect for managers with high EQ. Emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage emotions, comes into play in many areas at work. It’s usually discussed in the context of relationships, but it also plays a critical role in helping people get through difficult situations.

That’s because people with high EQ seem to be able to use their emotion-regulating talent to reduce their unpleasant feelings. They tend to do this by reframing or reappraising hardships as valuable opportunities. As we all know, developmental experiences can be rough: They typically entail learning new skills, interacting with new people, and solving non-routine problems. Consider the case of a young manager who was called upon to take responsibility for rolling out several pieces of a major marketing campaign, a project that involved considerable travel and logistical coordination. He became frustrated at the number of details he had to master and at what he perceived to be a lack of appreciation for his efforts. When he was contacted by a recruitment firm, he jumped. But it was a lose-lose: His company lost a promising young manager whom it had been grooming for advancement, and he later discovered there was little growth potential in the new job. This kind of thing doesn’t have to happen. One option for companies is to focus their developmental efforts on the high potentials who score the best on standardized EQ tests.

That’s a way of ensuring that people who enter grueling developmental experiences are psychologically equipped to weather the storm. But the reality in many organizations, large as well as small, is that selecting the high-EQ high potentials may not leave you with a very big pool of individuals. So there’s another approach: Companies can use knowledge about emotional intelligence to help young managers make it through developmental experiences. First, it would be helpful to gradually increase the level of challenge associated with development assignments. Don’t throw high potentials into deep water right away. Instead, give them more time or divide developmental assignments into intermediate steps so that they can keep their negative feelings from going out of control. Second, companies can frequently and regularly check the affective experiences of those who are undergoing developmental job assignments and provide emotional support for those who feel stressed or overwhelmed. That support might include coaching them to reframe their current situations as positive learning opportunities or making task-related assistance available from peers and supervisors.

These managerial practices may require a shift in organizational climate. Consider your firm’s approach to emotions: Does the company value emotions? Would senior managers feel it’s worthwhile to spend time and resources educating people about feelings? Would supervisors and peers be willing to spend time supporting young managers? If an organization neglects emotional experiences by leaving people to sink or swim, it may be stuck in a pattern of losing high potentials. If, however, the organization demonstrates a concern about its future leaders’ emotions — hiring those with high EQ and providing active emotional support throughout developmental assignments — it may be better able to develop young managers’ full potential without losing them along the way.