advice

Ask a Boss: I’m a Boss Now! Should I Feel Anxious All the Time?

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Dear Boss,

I recently got promoted to a managerial job, and I love what I do. I’m finding, though, that the amount of responsibility that falls on me has been making me unhealthily anxious. I missed a call from work today, for example, outside of work hours, and I have been agonizing over what could have gone wrong, whom I let down, what wasn’t prepared when a customer came in, and what chastisement I will have to hear tomorrow about managing things better.

To give you background, I know that my reaction isn’t rational because I haven’t yet been “chastised” in this role, and when I do get back to the office the next day, everything is fine. Always.

I’ve been like this for about six months. Since this is my first managerial position, I have to ask: Does every new manager experience this? Do experienced managers constantly feel this pressure, too, and should they? What can I do to ease some of this “weight-on-my-shoulders” feeling?

I’m starting to feel like this is just what is entailed by moving up in the workplace, but I’d love to know if my barometer is off here.

I think some degree of this is pretty common in new managers, yes, at least if they’re conscientious.

Managing can be stressful under the best of circumstances, and even more so when you’re new to it and still figuring out how to be a manager.

Think of it like this: When you weren’t a manager and you were just responsible for your own work, you had a lot of control over your performance — things like the quality of work you produced, whether or not you met deadlines, how you responded when a client was upset, and so forth. But now, as a manager, your performance relies on how other people handle those things, and they may or may not make the same decisions that you would. That can be really nerve-racking before you get used to it and learn how to navigate it.

But it’s also the core of what management is. Your job now is quite literally to get work done through other people. That’s a big shift from just doing your own work, and it’s a different skill set. And weirdly, it’s something that people often aren’t trained on. Much of the time, people get promoted to management jobs because they were good at something else, and no one thinks to give them much training or support even though their job has changed enormously. (Like a lot of new managers, most of what I knew about managing in the beginning came from having watched a series of bad bosses, who taught me what not to do. There’s definitely value in that, but it only takes you so far.)

In any case, if you’re still operating more or less like you did before you were a manager, that probably means that you haven’t put in place the systems and structures that you need to manage your team smoothly. And if that’s the case, no wonder you’re feeling anxious; you’re responsible for what other people do but without the structures to give you the peace of mind you need.

The way you handle this is by … well, by managing well. That means things like:

• Setting really clear expectations with your staff, so that they have the same understanding as you do about what performing their jobs well looks like. You want to do that with individual projects, of course, but also at the big-picture level — how you want people to approach their jobs more generally. For example, that might mean things like make sure you respond to client emails within one business day, or this is a high-stress environment, so please assume the best of co-workers and look for ways to make their jobs easier. It should also mean talking through what kinds of situations people should escalate to you versus what they have the authority to handle on their own.

If you invest time in this upfront, you can worry a lot less about what might be happening when you’re not there. It’s also good for your staff, because you’ll be setting them up to perform their jobs well, and they won’t have to check in with you about every little decision.

• Setting up systems that keep you in the loop about how work is progressing. If you don’t do this, you’re likely to feel out of the loop or like you don’t have much sense of how projects are playing out. That often leads managers to micromanage — because they feel anxious and end up checking in way too often and at weird times — or go to the opposite extreme and overlook problems. A system for regular, reliable check-ins will give you a consistent opportunity to provide feedback and course-correct if needed, without you hovering over people or hand-wringing about what might be happening that you don’t know about.

• Not letting problems fester. Managers — especially new managers, but plenty of more experienced ones, too — often take too long to address problems, because no one likes having awkward conversations or telling someone that their work isn’t good enough. But if you delay this kind of conversation, problems tend to fester, and by the time you do deal with it, the problems will often be more entrenched and harder to fix. (Plus, it’ll add to your anxiety if you know there’s an unresolved problem that could cause issues at any time.) If you vow now, at the start of your management career, that you won’t shy away from hard conversations, your work life will be much easier.

There’s more to managing a team than just this, of course, so you might get additional relief by picking up a good book on management or asking your company to pay for some training. But the three things above will put you in a significantly better spot than most new managers are in.

It also helps to know what you’ll do if something does go wrong. As a manager, you now have a ton of tools to use if that happens — from directing someone to do things differently in the future, to instituting new procedures team-wide. That’s a tremendous amount of authority to get things on track, and remembering those options might also alleviate some of your stress.

Keep in mind, too, that you can ask for feedback from your own boss about how you’re doing! You might hear things that put your mind at ease. Or, if she points out things she’d like you to work on, well, now you have a road map to what you could be doing better, and that’s much more helpful than dealing with free-floating worry about everything.

Now, will all this keep you from spending the night catastrophizing in your head when you see a missed call from work? Maybe, maybe not. But when you’ve trained people well and have good systems in place, it’s a lot easier to trust that things are probably okay (and that if anything goes really wrong, you’ll hear about it quickly).

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Ask a Boss: I’m a Boss Now! Will I Be Anxious All the Time?