Managing former colleagues

December 17, 2016

Managing former colleagues

Working in an industry with such a definitive career progression pathway, it's highly probable that - one day - you will be promoted above your peers, and people who were previously your colleagues will become your direct reports. No doubt, this could feel like one of the more awkward times in your life, so how can you navigate these new waters without alienating people who once considered you their friend?  

Realise that your relationships have to change

Whether you want it to happen, or not, your previous personal relationships with colleagues will need to change. This is because you are no longer their peer, you are now the person who assigns them work, analyses their productivity and conducts their performance appraisals. The start of this change will be to ensure that everyone on your team understands your new role and responsibilities. 

Have a chat 

The sooner you can sit down with each member of your team (individually) the better. They will want to try and figure out what type of manager you are going to be, and you'll want to reassure them that you are still the same person, but that your mandate and focus has now changed. You can talk about the expectations that you have of each other and get any potential issues out in the open so you can address them. 

Be honest 

It's totally fine to admit that this is new territory for you, and that there will be some things you will all have to figure out as you go along. It is important to convey that you welcome their input and suggestions and that your door is always open for a chat. 

Make your promotion their positive experience

This is a great opportunity for you to ask each of your team their short and long-term goals, the skills they want to build, the training they would like to have, and any obstacles that they see might get in the way of them doing the best job possible. You may think that you know your colleagues well, but asking these direct questions will be your entry ticket to gaining their trust and respect, and enable you to make a tangible difference in their careers. Making your promotion a positive experience for your team will help to take some of the heat out of the situation. 

Dealing with sour grapes 

You may have been given a promotion that one of your colleagues was also gunning for. This can lead to hurt and resentment which you will need to be aware of and manage - tactfully. 

While you won't be able to control someone else's response, you may be able to help your colleague to move past their hurt and build a positive working relationship. 

Firstly you'll need to be empathetic about the situation, without being drawn into a conversation about their feelings. Talking about feelings may only make the situation worse - they may say something hurtful, and you'll end up in an unproductive defensive position. 

You could talk about the goals that you want to aim for as a team, and how they can personally contribute to these goals. This should provide something external that your colleague can put their energy into, instead of dwelling on any internal hurts. 

It's a good opportunity to ask each new direct report about their career aspirations, as you may now be in a position to help them achieve their goals, provide training and insights, and help them to grow and develop. 

Drawing a line 

Another challenge is knowing where to draw the line between being a "mate" and being a "manager". You will have to find what best works for you, but it could include: 

  • Being professional at all times – this includes your language, attitude and actions. Things you said and did as a peer may no longer be suitable as a manager. 
  • Having one beer instead of three at work social gatherings. 
  • Unfriending your direct reports from your social media accounts (you'll need to explain why you are doing it, and that it's as much in their best interest as it is yours). 
  • No longer taking part in water-cooler gossip or venting sessions. 
  • Treating each member of your team fairly, as you can't be seen to have favourites.  

Remember that your position as the new manager isn't about trying to be popular, it's about leading others to achieve results. You may not win everyone over, but you may be able to earn their respect over time. 

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