how to manage former peers

A reader writes:

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.

Here 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.

{ 14 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    You also have to really, really believe that you’re the right person for the job and there’s a good reason you’re there. Your team can detect weakness and insecurity. Be confident, even if you have to fake it for a while. You belong in that role. Own it.

  2. Coco*

    Great advice. Specifically, tip #1. Learn to accept that the peer relationships are permanently different. You may have to find your work friends among the other managers.

    1. Jessa*

      This. The relationships have to change. It’s the nature of the job. And sometimes it stinks. But sometimes you have to sit someone down and say “Look, I get we’re friends/were friends, but this is business and this has to happen or THIS will happen next.”

  3. dee*

    I’m in the same exact boat! But all you can do is follow all the proper procedures and tasks as a Manager. And ignore the childish acts. If they were really “friends” to begin with they would support you 100% on this new promotion. They are not your friends if they are going against you its actually insubordination.. if you want to be technical. Like the comment above stay 100% confident with your role. It’s a hard position your in but it will only make you a better person and greater leader. In the end managers can’t have “friend” relationships with associates. But you can still be friendly and positive with them. :) best of luck to you!

  4. ExceptionToTheRule*

    I sympathize with the OP. Part of the reason I didn’t apply for a promotion was that it would mean managing the peers I’d been drinking and complaining about work with. There were other reasons, as well, along with I just plain wasn’t ready to be a manager. Part of my review of my goals and ambitions was realizing that I needed to put some distance between my peers and myself going forward.

    It took some time and by the time that promotion rolled around again, my peers were already looking at me as their leader, so when I became their manager that concern had been mitigated.

  5. Anonymous*

    This is such great advice! Unfortunately, my boss at my last job had been recently promoted and had been a long-time peer of most of my coworkers (I was newer and had also moved from a different department), and she failed to do any of this. I wish I could send this to her!

  6. Emma*

    Thanks for this advice. The only thing I would add to your list is that peer-now-boss might need to work a bit harder to communicate work-related information universally to their subordinates and not simply nest it within personal chats with their friend-coworkers. I don’t want to think such behavior is malicious but it certainly feels exclusionary in its forgetfulness. A quick “gather ’round, everyone” would do.

  7. anonymous*

    I had the opposite problem with my former supervisor as #1. We were on the same team and she was promoted after our supervisor was let go.

    She became incredibly power hungry the instant she was promoted and tried to micro-manage everyone in the company whether or not she supervised them. Basically, she alienated everyone except her boss. Yet she still invited herself to lunches, happy hours, showers, etc. It was incredibly awkward for all of us.

  8. BCW*

    Not that it sounds like the OP is doing this, but sometimes this stuff goes to people’s heads, and they just become bad managers, so its not always the fault of the employee I had someone who I got along great with, and then she became my supervisor. She was awful. Its not that I had a problem with authority, since I was on very good terms with her predecessor, but I had a big problem with the way she handled herself and talked to me. She all of a sudden was very condescending to just about everyone that she worked with that were her former peers, not just me. However any new employees she seemed to get along much better with.

  9. Cube Ninja*

    To BCW’s point, I’ve seen the same thing happen within my company a few times. The folks in charge tend not to take well to that and it was quickly put down.

    OP in this case happens to be my girlfriend (thanks for answering this one, Alison!) – if anything, she’s been over-cautious about exercising authority, but she can speak for herself. I’m just jazzed this was posted because its a really hard transition yo make sometimes. :)

  10. Anon*

    I’ve had this happen to me but from the other side. After my friend got promoted to be my boss, he didn’t recognize that our relationship would need to change and that now that he was my boss, I wouldn’t want to gossip about coworkers or complain about the management above us anymore or talk to him as much as I used to about my personal life. He was the person in charge of my evaluations and raises, and I wasn’t going to share things with him that could come back to bite me, but when I tried to cool our friendship, he took it really personally and there was a lot of tension between us. It made me really worried that it would harm me professionally and I actually ended up changing jobs to get away from it.

  11. SoAnon*

    I’ve been there, OP. I thought before my transition that we were different, that we were a special case, and we were all so mature and on the ball that our friendships would be the same once I was a team manager. It’s tempting to believe, but not true. More on my side than theirs, I think, but the push back is real, and there is also the fact that you may end up taking it much more personally when team members don’t perform or do what you need them to. By the end I had convinced myself I was not cut out for management and was never going to succeed.

    Later, I decided to move on and have learned it’s not managing other people I don’t like – it’s managing THOSE people I didn’t like, because I preferred being their peer or a friend. It made me a better and more prudent manager where I am now, and several of my former friends-turned-reports remain very good friends. It was a hard lesson to learn and I am lucky worse things didn’t happen as a result.

  12. OP*

    Thank you, everyone, for the advice. I wanted to give an update: since submitting my question, my direct manager (who could stand to read Alison’s blog) has been out of the office unexpectedly, and I have had to really step it up with my team due to a quarterly deadline. The entire team has pulled together, and I have experienced less resistance. I have been setting boundaries, but also providing recognition for the team’s efforts.

    We’re close to meeting our goal and I have to say I am very proud of my team and my frustrations are far fewer now.

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