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Managing Your Former Peers After You’ve Been Promoted: It’s Trickier Than You Think

Gaining a promotion involves taking on responsibilities that are new and unfamiliar, but the transition is especially challenging when you move into a people-manager role for the first time.

Gaining a promotion involves taking on responsibilities that are new and unfamiliar, but the transition is especially challenging when you move into a people-manager role for the first time. The coworkers you once confided in when you weren’t happy about a company decision, grabbed a beer with after work, or shared personal details with are now your direct reports. There’s no more complaining about “them,” because “them” includes you!

Making the shift from your team members’ peer to their supervisor requires intentional change. Understanding why problems arise and learning to spot the warning signs can help smooth the transition and set everyone up for success.

It’s All-New Terrain

When you manage employees for the first time, you venture into a new territory without a detailed map. The onboarding process for your new role is likely to focus on administrative tasks, such as how to complete annual performance reviews and generate management reports. Your manager is less likely to provide upfront guidance on how to build a new relationship with the coworkers who are now your direct reports. And while you were likely tapped for this role because you’re a high performer, successful performance as an individual contributor doesn’t prepare you to manage people.

Given that your relationship with your former peers is changing significantly, it’s only natural that you’ll feel uncomfortable and uncertain. Consider all the new and unfamiliar ways you’ll now interact with them:

  • You need to hold them accountable for meeting their job objectives and enforce the consequences if they don’t.
  • You need to deliver candid feedback about their job performance.
  • There will be confidential information you can’t share with them.
  • There will be times when you’re tempted to micromanage or take over a job you once did yourself.
  • You need to delegate tasks in a way that’s well-received and effective.
  • You need to work with everyone objectively, putting aside friendships, alliances, or knowledge of their personal situations.

The circumstances around your promotion can add further obstacles. If several of your peers also raised their hand for the job, they may resent that they weren’t selected. Or if you’re taking over for a manager who damaged morale, you’ll need to win over a disgruntled team.

Heed These Transition Warning Signs   

Despite your best efforts, you’ll likely find this a challenging time. To ensure the situation doesn’t progress to a crisis point, watch for these warning signs that the transition to managing your peers is off to a rocky start:

  • Your team is openly pushing back on everything from simple tasks to more substantive changes.
  • You’re experiencing passive resistance, ranging from body language that conveys disengagement, to doing the bare minimum to stay employed, to not doing the assigned work at all.
  • Performance and productivity are dropping off.
  • HR is receiving complaints that you’re playing favorites or bending the rules for certain employees.
  • You’re witnessing more conflict, even among people who once got along well.
  • Your manager has noted you’re neglecting your new job responsibilities (which is likely because you’re reverting to the comfort of doing your old job tasks).

Best Practices for a Smooth Transition

While waiting and hoping the situation will change is a natural inclination, it isn’t effective. To succeed in your new role, you’ll need to be intentional about how you’ll behave, interact, and show up differently as a manager of your former peers. Proven best practices like these can help.

Acknowledge the Issue

While it may feel uncomfortable, having a frank conversation with your team about the change in your relationship dynamics can be very effective. Ask them to take an active role in mapping out a “new normal” for working together, both at the team level and individually. If one of your team members was a close runner-up for the position, have a private conversation to acknowledge the situation and offer to help them to advance their skills and capabilities so they’re ready for the next opportunity.

Ask for Help  

Your manager won’t expect you to be a stellar people manager from Day 1 (or at least, they shouldn’t), so don’t be afraid to ask for their support. They were once in your shoes, so they should be able to offer guidance based on real-world experience.   

Tap Your New Peer Group

Over time you’ll form relationships with a new peer group—the coworkers who have similar roles as you, in different operating groups or divisions. Identify specific individuals you feel you can trust and seek their advice on making the same transition you’re now undertaking. What worked for them when they first began managing their former peers? What do they wish they had done differently?

Get to Know Your Leadership Style

Consider taking an assessment to understand your leadership profile, including your strengths and areas for improvement. The more self-awareness you have about the skills and attributes it takes to manage people, the better you can adapt your approach to this new role.

Find a Mentor or a Coach

Mentors and leadership coaches can provide useful guidance and act as an objective sounding board on a wide range of issues, including how to manage your former peers. Your mentor could be someone in a different functional group within the company or a trusted colleague outside the company; some companies have a roster of go-to coaches – if not, you may need to do some research on your own. The most important factors in choosing a mentor or coach are trust and rapport: find someone with whom you feel comfortable to bounce ideas off, ask for advice, or role-play a tough conversation you need to have with a direct report. 

Consider Team Coaching

Talk to your manager about bringing in a team coach to help the group operate effectively as a cohesive unit within the context of a new relationship. By collaborating as a group to establish new norms and expectations for working together, you’ll gain a much stronger mandate for change.  

The Leadership Advisory Practice at Odgers Berndtson helps organizations discover and develop leaders, strengthen value-creating teams, and prepare for what’s next. Learn how our highly experienced team of assessors and coaches can help your employees make the critical transition to managing their peers or tackle other leadership challenges.

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