How to Manage Former Peers After Promotion

How to manage former peers after a promotionA reader asks:

I was recently promoted from within my team to team manager.

I formed friendships with many of my coworkers prior to being promoted and would occasionally participate in game nights and the like with them. Now, however, I find myself in the position of being a supervisor for some of these coworkers.  I have tried to establish the “manager barrier,” if you will, but often find myself receiving pushback or being ignored when I give them a task or assignment.

I would like to maintain relationships with these employees, as many of them are great connections and share similar interests outside of work. But is this even possible? Having never been in a managerial role before, I have no idea how to approach this.

Being a new manager is hard under any circumstances, and it’s especially difficult when you’re managing people who used to be your peers.

There are five keys to making it go more smoothly.

1. Recognize that the dynamics have changed and you can’t have the same relationships with them that you used to have. Your job is now, in part, to judge your former peers’ work, and that means that a true friendship is impossible; the power dynamics don’t allow it. And believe me, they recognize this even if you don’t. So you need to have a professional boundary that you didn’t used to need. That means no gossiping, no complaining about work, and very little outside-of-work socializing. (Some is fine, especially if it’s company-sponsored or the whole department, but you can’t have the sort of close friendships that lead to regular after-work drinks or regular lunching with just one or two people anymore.) Close friendships outside of work just aren’t smart when you’re managing people’s performance and making decisions about raises, promotions, assignments, and even layoffs and firing.

2. Be direct about your expectations, and be assertive when people are behaving inappropriately.  For instance, if you find yourself being ignored, you need to address that immediately and make it clear it’s not acceptable. For instance, you might say: “Jane, I asked you to finish this report by yesterday and it’s not done. What happened?” And then follow up with, “I need you to do assignments by their deadlines.” Be calm, but be clear and assertive.

3. Address the big picture if you’re seeing a pattern. If an employee is repeatedly pushing back on your decisions, speak with them about it. For instance, you might say, “I’m getting the sense that you’re skeptical of my decisions in general. What’s going on?”  Listen with an open mind and then respond that you’ll take it into account but that you’re going to be making lots of decisions, and that you expect that they won’t push back on each one. Say that if they have a big-picture concern, you encourage them to take it up with you, but that in general you also expect them to understand that you’ll be making the final call.

4. If problems continue after you’ve addressed them, handle that the way you would any serious performance issue: by clearly stating your expectations, explaining where they’re falling short, and warning them what the consequences will be if you don’t see improvement.

5. Make sure you’re managing well overall. In order to effectively take on the sorts of problems you’re encountering – and to have credibility while doing it – you have to be managing well in general. That means educate yourself on things like how to delegate effectively, how to give feedback, how to establish a culture that’s both positive and rigorous about results, how to ensure people feel heard but also understand that you’re the final decision-maker, and so forth. Those things are essential for any manager, but especially when you need to establish your credibility with a team of former peers.

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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