when your former peer becomes your manager

One day you’re working happily together as coworkers, and the next day your peer has been promoted and is now your manager. How do you adjust to the change?

When a peer becomes your manager, the relationship needs to change. Here’s what you can do on your side to keep awkwardness to a minimum and work together harmoniously.

1. Realize that the relationship needs to be different now. Previously, you might have had frequent lunches or happy hours together before, or gossiped about coworkers. In this new configuration, you’ll both be better off with a bit more professional distance. You can absolutely still have a warm, friendly relationship, but – as the person charged with evaluating your performance – your former peer needs to have different boundaries now.

2. Fight any feelings of resentment. It’s possible that you’ll have moments of resenting that your former peer is now the person telling you what to do, evaluating your work, and making decisions about your raise or your project assignments. That’s especially true if you wanted the promotion that she ended up getting. But resentment won’t change the situation and can negatively impact how you’re perceived at work, so do everything you can to resist the feeling. If you truly can’t get past it, you might be better off transferring to another team or thinking about moving on – because open resentment will be bad for your professional standing and ultimately your career.

3. Rethink your social media settings. You might have been Facebook friends when you were peers. But now that she’s your boss, do you want her to have access to the same information as previously? Maybe you’re unlikely to post anything that would cause problems, but it’s worth a moment of thought about whether you want to change your privacy settings to have more of a boundary between what you post on social media and what your boss sees. For instance, if you call in sick one day, do you want her to be in the awkward position of having seen on Facebook that you were out late with friends the night before?

4, Don’t assume that you’ll get special treatment because of the previous relationship. It can be easy to assume that your former peer will cut you slack on things like coming in late or complaining in front of her about another team, but you’ll put her in a tough position by assuming that. Instead, treat her like you would any other manager and don’t assume the previous roles of conduct between you still apply. That doesn’t mean that you need to become a different person with her (and in fact you shouldn’t); it just means to be thoughtful about the fact that you roles are different now.

5. Don’t worry if things feel a little awkward at first. It’s normal for both of you to feel a little awkward about the change in your relationship. If you roll with it and try to minimize any weirdness on your own side, it will probably pass quickly. Depending on your relationship, it could even be helpful to tell her explicitly that you know things will need to change, and that you’re okay with that.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. illini02*

    I have to agree with the social media comment. I had a co-worker get promoted over me (by default really, but thats another story). One of the first things I did was change her privacy settings on my facebook. It did get weird when she would mention something like “I’m shocked you didn’t have a funny facebook comment on XYZ”. I never expressly mentioned she had less access, but I’m glad she did.

    One thing that makes it tough is the hypocrisy that can happen. I once had someone who I considered pretty close, and we would sit together and complain about certain things that management made us do that were fairly illogical. Then she got the promotion (again, one I didn’t want) and she became a stickler for those things that she complained about before. Its really hard to respect that in someone. I get that sometimes you don’t have the power to change things, but to act like you don’t understand why people are resistant to things that you yourself hated, just makes you look bad.

    1. fposte*

      There’s another side, though; sometimes when you get into another level you understand that doing these things, even if they’re illogical, has an organizational value that isn’t clear to everybody.

      1. illini02*

        I truly get that. But sometimes it comes down to explaining the organizational benefits as opposed to basically saying “Do it because I said so”.

        1. Melissa*

          Sometimes you can’t always explain the organizational benefit, though – either because you’ve been explicitly told to keep certain things confidential from your employees, or because explaining it would require going into a level of detail or background that would take a really long time to get through. And unfortunately, sometimes the answer is “I think it’s stupid too, but I can’t say that and I don’t have the power to change it, so you have to do it.”

          And in addition to that…I don’t know, but after having supervised employees it gets really irritating when your employees question your every move/always want an explanation for why certain things are done a certain way. I mean, I understand the impetus especially when a lot of supervisory decisions simply don’t make sense, but at another level it starts to sound a lot like unnecessary chafing/bitterness/something else that I can’t quite name. I’m not saying that employees should always just sit and take everything nicely with “Please sir, can I have some more?” but at the same time, people shouldn’t always expect an explanation from their supervisors.

      2. New to blog*

        This was my thought. I had something similar to this. I was temping at a hospital that was trying to scan all their paper records into the computer. I prepped the records and then sent them to be scanned. There was always conflict between us (preppers and scanners) about how much tape should be used because some things had to be taped down. The scanners said we had to tape everything that could possibly jam the scanner up. We were a little apprehensive about that, we didn’t want to waste tape. A scanner had to leave for a few weeks and I was asked to fill in. Yeah, working as a scanner changed my view on taping things down. When I went back to prepping, everything got taped down.

        Consequently, scanning the records I prepped was a breeze.

        1. Melissa*

          LOL, I worked in an environment in which we used paper vouchers to pay for things and before we submitted receipts we had to tape them down for the scanner. There was a very specific way that we were instructed to tape them down and it was Serious Business. On some level I understood that it was because of the volume of receipts they got (in just my department there were something like 160 RAs who each ran roughly 10 events a year, each of which might have 3-4 receipts associated with it, and that’s not including the receipts from the things we 22 supervisory staff did), but in the moment it just seemed so absurd.

          On a related note, I was always astonished at how many college students didn’t own tape.

      3. Mike B.*


        There are some things I let slide because I know they’re not important and it’s within my power to treat them accordingly. But there are some areas where we’re under pressure to keep our teams compliant, and we’ve got to toe the line there whether we’re in agreement or not. Additionally, once we’ve given direction, we need to expect our subordinates to follow it, or that becomes an issue in and of itself.

  2. C Average*

    Alison, I really appreciate this. It’s timely for me in many ways. Although my manager and I were never peers, I feel that we could benefit from better boundaries. Having wandered by accident into a work situation where there aren’t good boundaries, I can very clearly see the benefit of having them.

    Do you have any recommendations for putting these boundaries in place when they’re not in place and you’d like them to be? My manager sent me a Facebook friend request as soon as she arrived (which I reluctantly accepted and wish I hadn’t), makes frequent social plans with the rest of my team and tries to recruit me as well (when I’d honestly rather not socialize with my boss, and am a bit of a homebody anyway), and doesn’t seem to pick up on all the hints I drop that I’d rather have a purely professional relationship and not be pals.

    It feels really challenging to push this relationship back into a purely professional realm when I seem to be one of only two people on my team who’d like it to be that way. (Other team members seem to like being friends with the boss and don’t seem interested in changing the dynamic.)

    I’ve also seen that when I resist my boss’s social overtures, she stops communicating with me about work stuff, too, and just kind of freezes me out.

    I’m not sure I can change any of this, and it’s among the reasons I’m looking for a different position within my company. But until I can make that happen, I need to keep relations good so she will give me a good reference.

    1. Stephanie*

      Oooh, that’s tough. Could you go to like one or two happy hours (or whatever) a quarter just to keep the work relationship going until you find a new position?

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ugh, tough and frustrating. I agree with Stephanie that I’d suck it up and go occasionally — pick stuff that you could plausibly do with a boss with normal boundaries (like happy hour). And if there’s a way to fit it into the conversation naturally, you could drop a mention at some point that you like to keep the relationship purely professional because you know it can make it easier on both of you. (You might also mention at the same time some things you like about working with her, so that it’s less chilly message.)

    3. MaryMary*

      Could you play up the homebody angle? Let her know that you enjoy working with her and respect her, but that in your downtime you prefer to relax on your own?

    4. annie*

      Facebook has an option where you have “lists” where you can have different privacy settings. I have several people including my boss in a “list” where I only post certain very innocuous things on Facebook. To them, it looks like they are seeing everything, but really they are only seeing a few carefully selected things.

      1. LJL*

        Privacy settings have saved my professional tail on Facebook. The ones who don’t need to be seeing everything I do are shown very little. Everyone is happy.

  3. Laura*

    And if it doesn’t bother you, but they seem to think it should or does, say something – and make it genuine. Don’t leave awkwardness to fester because someone who wants a role assumes anyone else would and fears you resent them. This is especially true if they were technically junior to you in some way.

  4. Matthew Soffen*

    Been there done that.. Got FORCED to Train them… MULTIPLE times…

    I’m no longer on that team because it was the 3rd time they hired in or promoted someone else over me (“But you’re a valued member of the team.”) and then forced me to train them in what my (and more accurately, THEIR) job was.

    They never quite understood how demoralizing that was.

    1. Sidra*

      I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but the tone of your comment seems like it might indicate why you’re missing out on promotions… Specifically being “forced” to train them. It sounds like you are bitter and perhaps unwilling to honestly assess why you weren’t chosen and they were. I sure wouldn’t promote someone who was sour about missing a previous promotion.

      1. Matthew Soffen*

        Thing is.. For the promotion it was the last straw (precipitating my leaving that department completly)…

        1) I had been FORCED to go into a role that I loathed (and the department manager KNEW it) – From Software development to software support. I nearly left right then and there… But I didn’t.
        2) Unfortunately for me, I was good at the role (software support) and they “needed me there”. So I did the job.. For almost 2 years before leaving the group.

        I’d been specifically training to take over the management of the team. Under the direct tutelage of acting manager of the group, I was receiving the needed leadership training (and doing most of the day to day stuff for the team). He even deferred to my opinion in hiring one of the positions for the team (And she’s still there today)… After about a year, the supervisor’s position was finally “officially” posted.

        The acting manager of the team was 100% certain that I could (and would) lead the team well. I’d interviewed for it. But the hiring manager didn’t… And while I was on vacation they called to tell me they gave the position to a peer (That made for a REALLY enjoyable week off from work)…

        Am I bitter ? YES (Who wouldn’t be). I’d been on that team for about 10 years when I left.

        I’m in a position now outside of that group (and out from that manager too) and I’m much happier place at the company.

        1. GrumpyBoss*

          I think you are continuing to prove Sidra’s point. If your manager knew you loathed the position and felt forced, you are very likely being too outwardly negative at work. Did you ask for feedback on what you could have done differently to get the job? These are tough conversations to have, but valuable to help with self growth.

          I hear you on the vacation thing. I’ve been there and it sucks. Glad you are in a healthier situation.

  5. Stephanie*

    At my last job, we had someone who quit with no notice. One reason he listed was because he disliked working for someone younger than him without a PhD (his words). We hired technical specialists at that job, so often we’d want advanced degree holders. Problem is, sometimes the advanced degree holders would have ego issues and were convinced that the PhD should qualify them for higher positions in the organization or give them a leg up for promotions.

    1. Traveler*

      I’ve been the young employee managing people who had advanced degrees and were also older than me. Those types are frustrating – though lucky for me in my experience very rare. Advanced degree/age do not always guarantee the other skills necessary to manage – like keeping your ego in check.

    2. James M*

      Yep, there are people who believe their phd is the accreditation of divinity. Fortunately, your situation resolved itself.

    3. Sidra*

      Ugh, we have one of these in my office. He really does not understand that our boss is our boss because she has solid management/people skills… and he just doesn’t. At all. Being 20 years older and a few acronyms after his name doesn’t make him management material. Sadly, instead of moving on, or trying to gain the skills that would merit promotion, he’s just bitter and acts entitled/hurt over the situation.

    4. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      I always wonder if it occurs to people that the older the get, the more and more likely it is that they will work for someone younger than them. I get why it might be awkward to someone, but it seems like statistically, your chances would get greater and greater over time, as you become older than more and more working people.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Exactly. I haven’t had it happen yet. So far my bosses have been about 10 – 15 years older than me, and that’s been something of a comfort zone for me. It seems easier to accept the authority of someone who is, after all, older than oneself. I think my doctor and her nurse-practitioner are younger than me, and that hasn’t been weird. I hope I’ll have the grace not to feel weird about a younger boss.

    5. Melissa*

      Ugh, that’s one of the conversations we constantly have in these professional development sessions with peers who want to go into non-academic positions (I just finished a PhD). Truth be told, I hate to further this stereotype – but in my observation there’s some truth to it – but sometimes PhD holders are even *less* prepared for a corporate work environment outside of academia than people without one. Knowing some of my peers from my PhD department, as well as the kind of work that we’re expected to do as doctoral students, I know why employers are often skeptical about hiring us.

  6. MaryMary*

    Someone posted on this topic in Friday’s open thread too. At a previous job, I had a friend (good friend, not best friend) promoted to be my manager. We were able to work together and stay friends, and as far as I know we didn’t cause any problems with our other coworkers. There were a couple reasons it worked out okay for us:

    – We set work/friend boundaries and communicated directly about them. Either of us could say, “I am talking to you as your manager/as someone you manage, not as a friend” and the other would respect it. We’re not the type to have drama in our friendship, and we left professional disagreements in the office
    – When we were peers, we were both in management positions. So I had a good line of sight (and sympathy for) when she had to put her manager hat on, and she had no doubt about where to draw the line in terms of what she could share with me and what she couldn’t
    – My frienager (friend/manager) has a friendly, relaxed management style and our office was pretty egalitarian in general, so we didn’t interact much differently than she did with the other people she managed
    – But we were discreet. She’s not a social media person, so that wasn’t an issue, but when we did get drinks after work or hang out on the weekend, we didn’t broadcast it.

    It did take more effort, both to keep the friendship and to have a good work relationship, but I’m glad I did.

  7. Elizabeth West*

    A long time ago, I had a peer who was also a friend outside work get promoted over me. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out well–I had unresolved issues with depression at the time and through poor performance, I ended up getting fired. It damaged our friendship as well, though now we are Facebook friends mostly. We live in the same city but don’t hang out anymore. Part of that could be attributed to changing family situations, however.

    I just don’t friend people on Facebook ever until one or both of us has left the company. It’s better that way. I’m still friends with a former supervisor from Exjob and we were friendly ON the job, but we didn’t connect online until she left.

    1. louise*

      I don’t connect with current co-workers either. A couple years ago I was fired from a position (one of the biggest reliefs of my life) and within an hour, I had a friend request from two of my allies–both told me the upside to losing me as a co-worker was gaining me on FB. :)

    2. AnonAnalyst*

      Ugh, I’ve been on the other side of this. I was promoted to a role where I was managing my friend, who had also been someone I socialized with regularly outside of work. I think she either thought that since I had been sympathetic to the issues she’d had with her last manager that I’d agree that the level of performance that was expected of her was unreasonable (it wasn’t) or that she thought I was incompetent and never should have gotten the job, so she constantly pushed back on everything I assigned her or any feedback I had on her work. She also tried to undermine me to my manager in attempts to make me look incompetent. I ultimately ended up having to let her go. Not surprisingly, the shift in roles ended our friendship due to the way everything unfolded.

      I’m now wary of forming friendships at work (and definitely don’t connect with people on social media), which is tricky in my current company because most of the people here have known each other for a long time and socialize outside of work pretty frequently. I’m friendly with people, but I try to keep a professional distance. The downside is that I kind of feel like the odd one out since I’m one of the few people that wants to keep relationships purely professional.

  8. reader*

    Regarding #4 – You could even find that they are tougher on you in an attempt to not show even the perception of favoritism.

    1. MaryMary*

      I didn’t feel like my friend/manager was harder on me, but I did feel like I was…deprioritized sometimes. For example, one year I had my performance review the day before bonuses were set to be paid out (aka the very last minute). Or if I had a work crisis at the same time one of my colleagues did, my crisis came second. I understood why it happened, and we had a couple of those direct “I am not talking to you as a friend” conversations. But at the end of the day, I was less likely to react badly if she could only choose to put out one fire at a time, and it wasn’t mine.

  9. GrumpyBoss*

    It took a really bad situation, but I learned not to friend people on Facebook who I work with. Ever. I don’t care if it’s the boss or the janitor. The downside is huge. When I leave a position, I’ll send my Facebook link out in a goodbye email, and if people want to friend me then, I’ll accept.

  10. Melly*

    This very thing happened to me within the last year. I was on maternity leave and the new director made a bunch of big changes. He had good ideas but placed in trust in select people and took good care of them. A peer of mine got an enormous promotion, really beyond his skill set, and a job I felt strongly that I should have been considered for. I recognized quickly that I was not going to grow or learn much under his (lack of) leadership. There had been other signs over the years that it was time for me to go, and that was probably the final sign.

    Just started a new job last week in a place where I have much to learn and so much opportunity to grow. I report to experts in our field and I won’t look back.

    1. Steph*

      I am dealing with a similar situation right now- long story short, the entire staff of my department, save one woman who had been there for three months before I left, jumped ship while I was on maternity leave. I emailed our directors when I found this out, and they refused to discuss it with me while I was out. The remaining woman was promoted to department head, and filled all remaining positions before I returned. I returned to an entirely new team that I now am required to train (including several new hires that are in positions above me), and a manager that is disorganized, micromanages, and has far less experience than me. I’ve been back for three weeks, and have been applying to jobs like crazy trying to get out as soon as possible. Had a third interview and a second interview last week. It’s nice to hear that everything turned out well for you!

      1. Melly*

        GOOD LUCK! Your situation sounds miserable. I hope your opportunity pans out!

        I am really thrilled to be out of there, especially with a baby and child care costs, it feels even more important to be using my time in a way that I’m proud of and will allow growth. This is perhaps unfair of me, but the more I think about my situation at my former employer I feel like it was the classic woman-goes-on-maternity-leave-and-her-career-stalls thing. Granted, there were other factors at play but I was truly out of sight, out of mind and feel that I missed out on some opportunity. At one point someone told me the director didn’t know if I would even return to work, so that was partly why I stalled. Hmmm, that sounds like discrimination to me, thanks.

  11. Sidra*

    I’m hoping to get a promotion in the next year or two (managing the team I’m currently on) and worry about this sort of thing a LOT. I worry because my colleagues seem to think our current boss is “chilly” for not being social – despite my defending her actions and asking why on earth they’d want to go drink with their boss! She’s a great boss, and very friendly, and don’t think she’s chilly – she’s just a boss and can’t do those things.

  12. Ann O'Nemity*

    You never know when your co-worker could end up as your boss! I’ll never forget the time that I worked on an unhappy team. Venting to each other was not out of the norm. Well, one of the team members got promoted to be our new manager and promptly fired two of the biggest complainers. We were all a little shocked but it was a good lesson.

  13. Perpetua*

    In my case, my boss was sort of a friend before hiring me – he’s in my friend circle due to my partner being BFF with his partner. :P We are not close personal friends, but we do vacation together (as part of a larger group mostly) once or twice a year and hang out occasionally. So far, it hasn’t been a problem in our new roles *knocks on wood*, as we stick to business when at work (even our “free time” talks are usually about work now) and there is a casual atmosphere in the office anyway.

    Regarding social media, in addition to having lists, I never post anything I wouldn’t be comfortable with someone unwanted seeing, as a sort of precautionary measure. Sure, there are things I’d rather share on a limited basis which is why I don’t broadcast them publicly, but if any of them got out it wouldn’t be a disaster.

  14. Andrew*

    Any advice for someone on the other side of things? I just got promoted from library technician to assistant manager. I’ll actually be starting the new position next week. The promotion puts me as the second-highest person in the library, above both my peers and two soon-to-be-former supervisors and it’s my first management position. Feeling a little pressure here.

  15. Mike*

    Sidra, if your coworkers are complaining that your boss is chilly and anti-social now, are you sure that you want to become these people’s boss? You might want to reconsider that. If you do become their boss someday, don’t be surprised if they decide to quit and go elsewhere. I can understand why they’d feel the way they do. Not sure how old the people you work with are, but speaking from the perspective of a young person, people today want to work for someone sociable, not some impersonal strictly business type. This is what’s wrong with the business world today. Everything is too restrictive and serious.. Having a strictly business environment in the workplace may be ok for you and the older generation, but today’s employees want to work in an environment where they can truly be themselves without having to worry about being written up or punished in some other way for being who they are. I mean come on, just because you’re (the boss), it doesn’t mean you have to be a cold and stone faced robot.

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