HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. When you become a manager for the first time, how do you know what to do? Many of us are promoted into people manager roles without any preparation for the complexities involved in that work. But Harvard Business School associate professor Alison Wood Brooks says there are some basics that will help you get started as a first-time boss.

Brooks is an expert on behavioral insights, emotions, and the psychology of communication. In this episode, she takes questions from listeners who are struggling as first-time bosses. She offers advice for what to do when your direct reports are older than you, how to think about being likable and competent, and what to say if you’re not ready to be in charge.

This episode originally aired on Dear HBR: in March 2019. Here it is.

DAN MCGINN: Welcome to Dear HBR: from Harvard Business Review. I’m Dan McGinn.

ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Work can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. The truth is that we don’t have to let the tension, conflicts, and misunderstandings get us down. We can do something about them.

DAN MCGINN: That’s where Dear HBR: comes in. We take your questions about workplace dilemmas and with the help of experts and insights from academic research, we help you move forward.

ALISON BEARD: So, Dan, when you suggested that we might start cohosting this podcast together and that it would be an advice show, I thought that was a great idea, because you are always the one giving me advice about what to do at work.

DAN MCGINN: Well, that makes it sound like I’m a know-it-all, and I just promiscuously give advice all the time.

ALISON BEARD: No, that’s true, but I think we talk to each other before we go into our annual reviews a lot of times.

DAN MCGINN: And we compare notes afterwards.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I started two weeks before you at HBR and we sat next to each other the entire time that we’ve worked for the company. We give each other advice back and forth.

DAN MCGINN: Yeah. Why this appeals to me is work has gotten more complicated and just flat-out crazy in a lot of organizations. If somebody’s awake at 2:00 in the morning obsessing over something, work is probably a big chunk of the pie chart. Anything we can do to help people with those issues and especially when there’s research. You, in particular, are the research nerd and you always bring the science to this, that’s doing them a service.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, we all need help. Everyone needs it, from the youngest manager to the CEO.

DAN MCGINN: So, we’re rolling now.


DAN MCGINN: OK. Today we’re going to answer questions about first-time bosses, people who are brand-new managers whether they like it or not.

ALISON BEARD: Joining us now is Alison Wood Brooks. She’s an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, where she researches emotions and the psychology of conversations. Alison, thanks so much for being on the show.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Thanks for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

DAN MCGINN: Here’s our first listener question.

ALISON BEARD: Dear HBR: After three years at my company, I was recently promoted to Director of Operations, a new position. I’m the youngest manager in my department. I must now supervise two former peers, both of whom are older than me. One has already been quite vocal about her frustration with this reorg. From my leadership training I knew that I should meet with her one-on-one and get all these issues out on the table. I did, and I thought I asked all the right questions. I encouraged her to share her concerns and asked for advice on how we could best work together, but she was completely closed off. She said that it seemed unproductive to talk about her feelings and that she’d prefer to just focus on work. How can I get her to open up and trust me?

DAN MCGINN: So, Professor Alison, what do you think?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: The questioner asks how can I get her to open up and trust me? My question is, why do you want to be having this conversation with her? I think it’s important to think about what are you trying to talk about with your—

ALISON BEARD: But isn’t that all of the advice that you get from Linda Hill’s “Becoming the Boss,” all of the advice you get is that the first thing you should do is meet with your direct reports one-on-one and talk about your leadership style and talk about how you like to work and ask them how they want you to work with them. And that’s all the advice you get, right?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: That’s absolutely right, and it sounds like this manager has done that and it was not that fruitful. This person doesn’t want to talk about what we’re going to do. It sounds like they just want to do it, and to Dan’s point I think that this manager should just let them run with it. Just let them go, and see if they’re performing well. If at some point you feel like this relationship is holding you back or holding the other person back, then maybe it’s worth sitting down and revisiting and trying to work through some things, but we don’t need to talk and talk and talk to try and figure things out all the time.

ALISON BEARD: But what about if this person is feeling sort of resentful of being passed over for a promotion or jealous or insecure because, you know, hasn’t got the promotion and this young manager is now on top of them, so to speak? Those are a lot of emotions going around in this office, so how should this new boss deal with it?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: So, this scenario is sort of the perfect storm for feeling envious because you are similar people who are at the same level very recently and then one person is promoted. That’s the perfect recipe for interpersonal envy. There are two different forms of envy. There’s malicious envy, where they have something that you want and you wish they didn’t have it and you want to sort of tear them down. And then there’s benign envy, where you realize they have something that you want but instead of trying to tear them down you want to lift yourself up. As managers that’s sort of our job, is to try and inspire people to lift themselves up rather than tearing others down. And one way that we’ve identified that you can do this is by very openly and explicitly talking about the failures that you’ve encountered on your path to success.

ALISON BEARD: Wouldn’t that be hard, though, for this new young boss to do, to sort of walk in talking about things that he’s done wrong?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: It feels very counterintuitive. In every professional setting and on all of our resumes and CVs and on social medias we have this really strong intuition to reveal only positive things about ourselves, especially for this person who feels like that they probably need to prove themselves as a new manager, but those are exactly the situations where revealing failures can be most profound.

ALISON BEARD: It’s funny, because I like to do my research before I go into these things, so one of the pieces that I read was “Why Should Anyone Be Led by You,” which is sort of an old and popular HBR article. And it was a study of leaders and what the best leaders do, and one of the first ones was reveal weaknesses.


ALISON BEARD: I know! Linda Hill’s “Becoming the Boss” – I’m citing again, man, I have to stop! But she talks about demonstrating character, that you have the right intentions, you know, you want to do the right thing, and I think one of those things is advocating for that employee’s development, which circles back around to the benign envy. Sort of, I know you wanted this job, but could we all work together to get to this goal that is what we all want? And then showing that you have the competence, so you have the knowledge to get that person there, and then also that you have influence. So, maybe that’s what this employee needs is a demonstration of those three things. Sort of, if you want to focus on works, that’s totally cool. Here’s how I’m going to help you focus on work and get us both higher in this organization.


DAN MCGINN: I wonder if we’re missing one of the key points of this question, which is that the new boss is really, really young and the subordinates are older. There’s an age gap here. I’m the oldest in the room right now. You two are a good bit younger than I am.

ALISON BEARD: I wasn’t going to say anything to him. [LAUGHTER]

DAN MCGINN: I’m probably the only one here who remembers the TV show Doogie Houser about the 15-year-old doctor?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Of course we remember!

ALISON BEARD: Beep beep boop, Doogie Houser.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: That was when we were, like, five. [LAUGHTER]

DAN MCGINN: All right, and I was older than five. But Alison, you became a professor at Harvard in your 20’s. You routinely are in an exec-ed classroom with much older executives. Is there anything you’ve done to try to minimize that perception that she’s too young to be doing this?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Yes, yes. When I started at Harvard Business School I was 28, and the average age of MBA students is 29 or 30, I think. So even my MBA students were on average older than me. I know this feeling very, very well of being sensitive about age, and I do think there is dramatic ageism in the workplace where people tend to be resentful if a younger person is higher than them in status or just a general ageism where we kind of view expertise of knowledge to correlate perfectly with age, which is definitely not true.

So, long story short, I can imagine how this manager is feeling self-conscious about his or her age, and maybe that’s part of this. This is the resentment that he or she is sensing, that the older person is resentful that a younger person was promoted. In any social situation like this where things are sensitive, my go-to strategy and one that I advocate to others is to ask questions: Are you bothered that I’m younger than you?

ALISON BEARD: That’s direct.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Super direct, I know. Shockingly direct, but you know, they’ll probably say no, but you can read their reaction based on nonverbal cues too.

DAN MCGINN: See, I would go in exactly the opposite direction there.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Because you’re an old guy. [LAUGHTER]

DAN MCGINN: I am, I am, but I would actively take steps to try to minimize the perceived age gap. I mean, imagine if, you know, because I’m the old guy in the room, imagine if I was working for you and I said, send me that slide deck on email, and you said no, I’ll snapchat it to you. [LAUGHTER] That’s something that teenagers do. That’s going to make me feel older, you know? If I see you on a Monday morning and said Alison, how was your weekend? And you say, oh, I went to see Justin Bieber on Saturday night, not a good thing. You’re emphasizing the fact that there’s this cavern between our ages. And I think you do this yourself, you know, you’re focused on the high-faulting psychological techniques here. You know, you dress very professionally.

ALISON BEARD: I’ve actually always done that too, like from the moment I started at the Financial Times when I was pretty young in my 20’s. People did wear jeans and whatnot, but all the senior reporters wore suits, and so I was like I’m coming to work in not a suit, but, you know, a dress every day.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: They always say you have to dress for the job you want to have, right? Not the one that you have?


ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Actually, one thing is when my hair started turning gray I was like, I’m not even going to dye it because I just don’t want to look like I’m 28. I want to look a little bit older, and I’m not going to talk about the latest Top 40 songs, because I want to feel like I’m in the same group and speaking the same language as my older colleagues.

DAN MCGINN: Flip the script there. The older person is probably worrying that they’re a little bit too old. You’re not going to be 28 forever.

ALISON BEARD: Tell me about it. [LAUGHTER]

DAN MCGINN: And that you have an asset in a lot of ways, and don’t focus on this liability because the person who’s older is probably feeling that age is a weakness for them as much as you’re feeling it for yourself.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Do you think that asking questions will exacerbate the age difference or just get to a place of more mutual understanding?

DAN MCGINN: I know for me, if I was uncomfortable reporting to somebody who was younger and they asked me, “does my age bother you?”, it would make the situation worse.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, and I also think that this employee has demonstrated that she does not want to talk. I mean, I feel like that comes across really clearly that she does not want to talk.


ALISON BEARD: And so, I feel like the path forward is to do what she wants. Focus on work as you said. If she’s underperforming and you need to start having more conversations with her, fine, but small things, making a personal connection, which doesn’t have to be an in-depth emotional conversation but can be as Dan referenced earlier when talking about good bosses, you talk about restaurants or sports or something that you can find that you have in common, which might be more difficult when you’re young and old, but it’s not impossible. And maybe what you have in common is just the work that you’re doing. What’s interesting is that we also published a story – I think, Dan, you published this piece – and it was research basically showing that low-status bosses, whether it’s because of their age or experience or education level actually should be bossy and it’s more effective, which struck me as so odd.

DAN MCGINN: Yeah, it was definitely the opposite of what you would expect. The study looked at situations where a younger boss was very directive or was more accommodating and a little bit softer, and it found the opposite of what you would expect, that the directive boss, even though it seems like it would be off-putting to be bossed around by this baby, that actually worked really well.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: It’s like the movie.

DAN MCGINN: Exactly. [LAUGHTER] So what’s the take away? What are we telling this person to do?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: I think we’re telling this person to stop belaboring this change and the differences between you and your direct reports, and maybe just try and get on with your work, focus on the work like your subordinate wants to do and see how things go. Another thing is you can just try to be delightful. Of course, focusing on the work and being competent is important, but being a delightful colleague and a delightful boss is difficult to argue with.

DAN MCGINN: Delightful.


ALISON BEARD: Why don’t we move onto the next question?

DAN MCGINN: OK. Dear HBR: I’m a new boss at a financial institution. My staff says they want more feedback and more openness. I understand the request, but as a female leader I’m hesitant to get too involved in sharing. I find it impossible to hit the sweet spot between maintaining a professional, strong, stoic image and allowing myself to be human or vulnerable or to ask for help or understanding from subordinates. How can I learn to be more open without seeming weak?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: I hear where this woman is coming from. Like, girl, I get it. I think a lot about disclosure too myself. I mean, even now as we’re sitting recording this I’m thinking about how much should I be sharing my own personal thoughts and anecdotes and feelings and how much should I be just discussing scientific evidence based on hundreds of people. Do I put on my hat as Alison, a young woman, or do I put on my hat as Alison, a professor at the Harvard Business School?

DAN MCGINN: And this idea that there’s this sweet spot, that it’s hard for women in particular to find it, do you hear that a lot?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Absolutely. The tradeoff that she’s describing and where she’s struggling to find this sweet spot is a classic tradeoff that we know about in psychology, and it’s a tradeoff between warmth and competence. Warmth means you have friendly, kind intentions towards others, and competence means you have the capability to executive on the things you need to do. Women struggle to achieve both, so in the eyes of others it’s hard to be viewed as both warm and competent, whereas for men it is pretty easy to be viewed as both. People view men as more competent writ large, and if they do one nice thing then they’re viewed as pretty warm.

ALISON BEARD: But aren’t women penalized for lack of warmth? So, isn’t this woman’s concerns very real in that she’s going to get dinged for not being touchy-feely when men won’t?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Absolutely, yeah. You’re totally right. So, we know that if men lead with competence, it’s OK, even if it’s completely devoid of warmth. If a woman leads with competence she’s viewed as a B word and cold and calculating and manipulative and overly strategic.

ALISON BEARD: Not just because I’m a woman, but I think it’s something that everyone struggles with, and especially when you’re a new manager you want to come in and you want to make sure that everyone knows you’re the leader and knows you’re in charge. And it’s hard to do the touchy-feely stuff because you feel like it might undermine your authority.

DAN MCGINN: Do you think it’s important that she works in finance as an industry as opposed to other industries where gender might be less of an issue?

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, absolutely.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Definitely. So, listen. We know that being a woman in an underrepresented context or domain like finance or academia or tech or whatever – most work domains actually – is difficult and women face additional barriers all the way to the top. And there is emerging research right now that I find really fascinating on this topic in which they study how we should have these conversations about gender. Should we have conversations about gender explicitly and race also? And what they find is talking explicitly about gender is not as helpful because people tend to think about biological differences between men and women and that women are maybe less prepared or less qualified to do tasks, so it’s not actually that helpful to even think about gender differences. Rather, maybe set aside the fact that you’re a woman in finance and just totally kick ass and be nice to your colleagues and let it go that you are a new manager and a woman.

ALISON BEARD: So, sorry, kick ass in terms of your performance or kick ass in terms of being an empathetic boss?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Thank you for pushing me on my kick-ass comment. [LAUGHTER] By kick ass I mean be as competent as you can while simultaneously being relatable, warm, and kind to your direct reports.

ALISON BEARD: Do you think those kinds of people advance in financial institutions, though? I don’t know that they do.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: People who kick ass?

ALISON BEARD: No, people who are warm leaders. Isn’t it seen as a sign of weakness?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: I think our sample size is pretty small when we’re talking about finance and women in finance.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, absolutely, and I think she does work in this very hard-charging environment where being warm and fuzzy probably isn’t what’s going to get you ahead. And I think she knows that and is internalizing it. I knew a woman in my 20’s who worked at a bank in New York and she was one of the more hard-charging, tough, dare I say cold people that I’d come across. And it’s interesting. I’ll always remember in the afternoon she didn’t go get tea and coffee, she sucked lemons. The lemon-sucker.

DAN MCGINN: She literally sucked lemons?

ALISON BEARD: She literally sucked lemons, which –

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: It feels like a metaphor.

ALISON BEARD: – so epitomized her personality, exactly. And so, but then she really did rise up the ranks through this company. Women in these fields that sort of they advance being that hard-nosed person, and then maybe they finally realize that they can’t do it forever.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Yeah. There’s a sort of other facet to this, which is you need to do what you need to do to essentially be able to enjoy your job and survive because we see so many women who exit these types of industries.

ALISON BEARD: Not to say that all women are warm. Certainly not all women are warm.

DAN MCGINN: Clearly in some cases I can see how that holds women back, but I wonder if there’s not this danger of over-correcting. And when I see this letter with the idea that stoicism is something we want in our managers, I wonder if this reader or listener is over-correcting and trying to be so non-maternal, non-warm that it’s actually backfiring on her.

ALISON BEARD: But that’s a natural inclination that you would have if you’re a new boss at a financial institution and you’re a woman, so obviously it’s a natural inclination that we’re encouraging her to fight. But it’s a hard thing to do when you’re trying to prove yourself.

DAN MCGINN: I’m curious, in your own lives as women who are leading in organizations, how do you operationalize? Are there any tactics that you’ve personally tried to implement to find that sweet spot that the listener is struggling to find?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: It’s an interesting position to be in, to be a female academic. The gender balance in academia is not balanced at all. I have a female colleague at MIT who is a more senior professor than I am, and she always says that she likes having her photo taken so she looks like she’s not to be [expletive] with. But then you meet with her and she is incredibly kind and funny and warm and loving, so you see these examples of women trying to strike this balance between toughness and warmth all the time.

ALISON BEARD: That’s one of my favorite HBR articles in the past couple of years, that Amy Cuddy piece that we ran, it’s called “Connect, Then Lead,” when she’s talking about the importance of showing warmth first, and then following with competence.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: I agree with the HBR article that leading with warmth is the way to go, and I think women get into more problems when they try to lead with competence because they come across as cold and un-relatable. And when people like you, they want to interact with you, open up with you, and you can get a lot more done.

ALISON BEARD: So, I personally don’t manage a lot of people, sorry I’m being such a nerd and citing all the HBR research, but Herminia Ibarra, she talks about the fact that as a leader, if you don’t feel like you’re being true to yourself or not the image that you want to be, you need to experiment with possible selves. So, I wonder if this leader could think about ways in her life that she is a warm, wonderful, nurturing person who is open and think about ways that she could bring that part of herself to work.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Beautifully said.


ALISON WOOD BROOKS: As you were talking about these possible selves, it makes me think for me personally it has been very empowering to embrace the idea of having multiple selves. I am not going to be the same person when I’m in front of executive education students at the Harvard Business School teaching as I am when I’m at home interacting with my two-and-a-half-year-old and my eight-month-old. And I’m not going to be the same person when I’m at somebody’s bachelorette party in Las Vegas, right? Those are very different selves. They are all authentically me, and it has been very comforting to come from a place of accepting that and embracing it rather than feeling like oh, my gosh, I’m being inauthentic. I’m not being a consistent, single human across all these different contexts.

DAN MCGINN: The idea of bosses wearing multiple hats really resonates with me. During my career I’ve worked mostly for women managers, and if I were to meet with my boss later this afternoon, I guarantee that for the first four or five minutes we would talk about what’s going on in our lives. Pets, children, home renovations, what we watched on television. The first part of the conversation would be very warm and the message would be that she cares about me as a person, but once we get past that it’s all about am I delivering, is the quality there? It becomes, you know, take no prisoners, all business. And I think code shifting, women in particular need to find not one thick spot on this continuum but the ability to move back and forth in a way that shows your people that you care for them as people but that you demand results at the same time.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: I agree. I often think about the ratio of any conversation, where is the emphasis on warmth versus competence, and I’ve experimented myself with the ratio of time. So, let’s say you have a half-hour meeting and you think about OK, how many minutes at the beginning of the conversation should we talk about each other’s children or what’s going on in your life or what are you struggling with right now personally? And then there is this inflection point where you turn to talk about substantive things.

DAN MCGINN: One of my bosses that in meetings, we’d start, she’d have her notebook closed in front, we’d talk for a few minutes, and then at a certain point the notebook would open up and the message was OK, now it’s time to get down to business. And the mood would change. The climate and the atmosphere in the room would change and it was clear at that point it was all about competence.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: And importantly, when you reach this inflection point it’s not like you’re moving from warmth to competence overall. Your decision to smile or not when someone comes up with an original idea versus saying that’s a [expletive] idea, terrible idea, we’re not going to talk about this, those micro moments matter too. So, when you get to the substantive part, warmth versus competence still matters. But even thinking broadly about the structure of the whole conversation is actually really smart to do ahead of time.

ALISON BEARD: So, it sounds like we’re telling our female leader that she needs to push herself and experiment more to show a little bit more emotion when she can and practice doing it so that her employees respond to her better.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: I would say also that I find almost all people to be overly serious, so don’t hesitate to be a little bit sillier, a little bit more fun, a little bit funnier. I think a lot of women hold back on letting that side of them show because it feels unprofessional or incompetent in some way, but people love it. They’ll want to interact with you more, so just go for it.


DAN MCGINN: So,a the conclusion, it sounds like we agree that she needs to dial up the warmth, understand the risks of going too far in that direction, but understanding that a stoic professional is probably going to be disliked and that that’s going to inhibit her career much more in the long term.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Good summary. [LAUGHTER]

DAN MCGINN: Onto the next question. Dear HBR: My boss just quit. I’ve been asked to step up and fill the leadership vacuum. I’m flattered and it would be nice to get a better title and more money, but I’m just not interested. I’ve served in a similar role at another company and I didn’t enjoy it. That’s not where I want to go professionally, but even though I want to remain an individual contributor I’m afraid I’ll hurt my career by saying no to this opportunity. How do I say no and not hurt my career? Alison, any research on that?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: I have a question first. Can you clarify what they mean by I’m afraid I’ll hurt my career by saying no to this opportunity?

DAN MCGINN: So, the first thing I thought about with this question was the same as you. Is this a company where there’s a lot of pressure to move up, where individual contributors are not considered a long-term position. The fact that she’s anxious about this suggests that she doesn’t feel like she can just spend her career in the role she’s in now. Does that help?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Yes. Yes, when thinking about whether to accept a promotion or not we have a bit of data that I collected with my colleague, Francesca Gino, and we asked people to make a list of their core goals in life. So, imagine that I had you sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and I said just write down the things that you care about, the things you hope to achieve, and the things that are on your mind on a daily basis. These might be things that are really long-term and heavy and important like I want to have four children or I’d like to make sure I keep my family healthy. Or they could be really trivial things like I want to stop biting my nails, I want to lose three pounds, I want to buy a Chanel jacket. So, this is a long preamble to say that this goal structure ends up influencing many of our life choices. And so, what we found is when you offer a promotion to men and women, women are less likely to accept it than are men.

ALISON BEARD: Because they understand the tradeoffs.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: They understand the tradeoffs. Women and men predict the same levels of the positive stuff, so they know that this job is going to bring them more money, more power, more prestige, all of the good stuff, but women predict more of the negative stuff. They anticipate more stress, more tradeoffs, more burden, and being more tired. It’s possible that women are over predicting the negative things that come with promotions, it’s possible that men are under predicting the negative things that come with promotion. Or it’s possible that they’re getting it completely right, that it actually is more stressful for women to be in these high-power positions.

ALISON BEARD: It’s funny, because I would prefer not to take this in a gender direction, because Dan and I are great examples. We sit together forever, but we have been reporters, writers, editors, our entire career.


ALISON BEARD: Yeah, so why do we want to do this? So, I go back to the motivators of behavior, Dan Pink. So, autonomy, we control what we do, we decide what we’re going to write about, we have mastery, which sounds very braggy, but you know, we’ve done it for a really long time and we’re good at what we do. And then we derive meaning from our work. And so, I know plenty of people, men and women, who wouldn’t find those three things in a management job. Lots of people do. Managing people, managing teams, managing organizations, those are very noble causes. You do have more control, all of those things. There are personalities who just that’s not what they want. They want to produce.

DAN MCGINN: And I also think that organizations are sort of almost built on the assumption that everybody has this desire to move up. I used to work at a place where every year in the performance evaluation they would have you fill out where do you hope to be in five years? And it really felt like it was unacceptable to say, I want to be doing exactly what I’m doing now. It’s almost like this gravitational force that organizations are built on. Everybody’s looking to move up. Especially startups have a tendency to push people up the chain, and one of the things that companies need to do as they get bigger is realize that not everybody’s going to go up the chain and that there’s some people who want to be that designer, that engineer who sits at their desk and doesn’t manage other people. The amount of value that those people can add in that position, it makes sense not to push them to move out of it.

ALISON BEARD: So, it’s sort of always been possible at a publishing company or a law firm. It certainly happens in media. I honestly think, though, that if she knows that she wants to stay an individual contributor and she’s working for a company that won’t accept that, then I think she should start looking for another job. I don’t think she’s at the right company. We ran on HBR.org a blog post by Anne Creamer, who is an executive at Nickelodeon, and she found that she got to management and exactly like this woman, when she was in the position that she realized she wasn’t right for, she said I miss creating. I don’t want to oversee the creators. I want to be making shows. And I think unfortunately she couldn’t go back in her own organization, so she ended up leaving.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Absolutely. This is starting to highlight something that I think about as the yes/no paradox. The ideal employee, the ideal colleague, says yes to everything because we like when people say yes to us. Companies like when people say yes to them.

DAN MCGINN: Companies don’t like to be told no. They look at you as a widget that’s going to move into this slot and solve a lot of problems, and if the widget says no they need to go out and make, buy, build something complicated. There’s risk associated with that unknown person. There’s search costs. There’s the loss in productivity while the job is open. So, saying no has costs and complications to not just your boss on a personal level but the company. You need to be aware that a company’s going to view that as a negative, and they’re not going to like it.

ALISON BEARD: This is a person who’s tried it before and knows that they want to stay an individual producer, which I completely identify with and I think a lot of people do. We have stats. 76% of people don’t want their boss’ job. 34% of workers aspire to a leadership position. So that’s not a lot.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: So, then we have this challenge of what do we say no to, and how do we say it in a way that keeps as many options open and optimizes on our goals and what we want to be doing day to day.

ALISON BEARD: If this woman does work in a company, as Dan said, that has paths for individual contributors, she should quite clearly say that she wants to be on that path. If the company doesn’t have that path and sort of everyone has to go up to management, she needs to figure out whether she can negotiate a carve out and be the first one, be a trail blazer.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Yeah, this is definitely a negotiation question. It might be the case that she doesn’t need to take on the job that they have in their minds for her, but there might be bits and pieces of it that she would enjoy doing and she could get a better title and more money like she said she wants.


DAN MCGINN: So, here’s one question I had on this. Let’s say that she decides flat out she does not want to do this. Is she better off giving them a no with an honest answer that reflects the fact that her ambitions don’t lie on this path, or is she better off giving some sort of an ulterior answer that might preserve her sense of ambition down the road? It’s just not a good time right now, I think I’ll be ready to do that in three years, something that, you know, if you’re asked if you ever want to be president and you’re politician, you try to not say no because you want to keep your options open. Is there something she needs to do here to keep her options open or to keep her as a high potential in the company, not cut herself off?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Yeah, you don’t want the scenario where they’re not going to come to you and ask, right? Being asked puts you in the higher power position, because then you get to choose. You don’t want that choice cut off and taken away from you altogether.

ALISON BEARD: I think she also needs to emphasize not just why personally she doesn’t want to do the job, but why the organization will benefit from her staying where she is.

DAN MCGINN: Yeah, I think that’s a fine line, though. You don’t want to imply that you wouldn’t be good at the job. I think you need to be careful in saying no that you don’t say anything that diminishes your skills or makes you sound less competent than you want your bosses to think you are. The other solution that might come into play here is the in-between, which is I’m happy to step up and do the job temporarily during the search, but I don’t want to be a candidate for the long-term position. That shows you can do the job, it shows you’re a team player, you’re willing to make a sacrifice, but it also doesn’t put you on a path you don’t want to be long-term.

ALISON BEARD: I think the other difficult dynamic in this situation is that if this person had a good relationship with their own boss, they’re now negotiating with the boss’s boss. I would have no problem having that sort of conversation with my immediate manager, but I don’t know that I would have that conversation with the next level up.


ALISON BEARD: I don’t know. I think my boss understands me best and understands my knowledge and skills, ability, you know, the fact that I get my job done best. And so, the people higher up will judge you on different things. And one of those will definitely be well, why doesn’t she want to rise to my level or the level below me? And they don’t know your work as well or your personal situation.

DAN MCGINN: It sounds like we all recognize the idea that even if our level of ambition isn’t sky high that there’s some benefit in kind of faking it a little bit and making our boss think that we might be more ambitious than we really are, with the idea that there’s more upside than downside to doing that.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Yeah, I think that’s right. And it maybe isn’t faking it, right? Like maybe that feeling should internalize that and make it feel authentic as well. Life is long. Careers are long. You never know how you’re going to feel in five, ten, fifteen years when your goals and your values and what you want to be doing changes.

DAN MCGINN: In my last job I was offered a series of promotions, and I was convinced that I’d never want to take the job that they were offering. Six, seven years later I did, so you don’t know what your future self is going to want because you don’t know your future self.

ALISON BEARD: So, it sounds like we’re telling this person who doesn’t want to step up that she should think very carefully about why she doesn’t want to and what that will mean for her at the company if she says no. She should approach her boss’ boss at this point when she’s asked for the promotion and be very honest about what her aspirations are and how she thinks she can contribute to the company and possibly give a temporary yes, which is I’ll do it for a time but I don’t want to do it long-term, or also suggest that in the future it might be something she would consider but it’s not something she’s going to consider now.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Yeah, I think a hard no is definitely not the right thing to do here. We often talk about shades of yes and shades of no, and in this case saying no but coming from a place of yes feels like the right scenario. You don’t want the scenario where they’re not going to come to you and ask.


ALISON BEARD: So that’ll wrap it up for this episode. Alison, thanks for being on the show to work through these questions with us.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Thank you so much for having me.

HANNAH BATES: That was Alison Wood Brooks – in conversation with Alison Beard and Dan McGinn on Dear HBR:. She’s an associate professor at the Harvard Business School.

We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review.

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This episode was produced by Curt Nickisch, Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Rob Eckhardt, Adam Buchholz, Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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