After more than 10 years as an individual contributor, Jason finally got his coveted promotion. He became a team lead. He took his new role very seriously and distanced himself from the team, taking on a professional persona with them. His actions, however, backfired. His team felt like he was patronizing them and didn’t support him. It took a long time to rebuild the relationship.
Jane took another route when she got promoted. She wanted her team to feel like she was their best friend rather than boss. She shared personal details, invited them for social activities after work, asked them about their lives. Her approach also backfired. She was hurt by the cold shoulder she received in return and was disappointed to find out that her team got together for drinks and didn’t invite her.
Cam’s experience was even worse. He felt like team members tried to take advantage of their status as friends and use his authority to do them personal favors, ignoring performance missteps. They treated his requests for project deliverables as nagging. He longed for respect and hoped to construct a professional relationship with his team.
Jason, Jane and Cam are all fictitious characters that represent the experience many professionals go through in their transition from peer to boss.
This transition is an important step in one’s growth as a leader but it can be very lonely. Some avoid seeking help out of fear of giving the impression that they are not coping with the new responsibility. Others may not have anyone they can turn to.
In the following paragraphs, we will unpack some of the social dynamics involved and share tips that can help you better manage this phase.
A new role, the same you?
From one day to another you may switch from being a member of the team and sharing similar responsibilities, challenges and frustrations to the person who needs to guide and motivate the same individuals. Your role has changed and you may no longer benefit from the camaraderie and group support.
It may take time to find your voice, to build the confidence, to overcome the impostor syndrome about why you were the one chosen and to start getting comfortable in this new seat. Moreover, this mindset shift will require experimentation in terms of what it means to lead and guide your team, what information needs to be shared and what must remain confidential and how to balance friendly relations with hard choices that come with authority.
Finally, through your actions and reactions, you will need to build credibility and trust, demonstrating to the team that you deserve not just the formal but also the informal authority to lead them.
Dealing with baggage: is your former peer a friend or foe?
You may get lucky with all team members being extremely happy with your promotion, selflessly choosing to support you to deliver all the projects. Sometimes, however, egos and emotions get in the way.
One former peer may be jealous that they didn’t get picked for the role and start acting out. Another may feel entitled because you’ve previously been their best friend on the team and expect special treatment and access. Then you get stuck in the middle of the drama, having to navigate everyone’s emotional baggage instead of focusing on the work that needs to be done.
Setting boundaries and other tips to manage this transition
Whether you are managing friends or foes, there are several things you can do to help you navigate this more successfully:
Be yourself but set boundaries: relationships can be tricky, both in professional and person life. You do not need to change who you are in order to be a successful boss but it’s important to clearly set the ground rules for the new relationship to avoid misunderstandings and subjective interpretations. Carefully define everyone’s roles and communicate the expectations you have from them. Ask for feedback to check alignment and understanding and get their buy in. Not everyone will be onboard from the start but as long as the rules of the game are transparent, you will be able to hold yourself and others accountable.
Check-in regularly: it will take time to figure out how to best work together and you will make mistakes along the way. It is therefore important to get frequent feedback from team members and adapt your approach as needed. Regular one-on-ones will allow you to better understand the needs and concerns of each team member and build a closer relationships. It will be also wise to check in with your own boss to see how you are doing and get practical advice on how to tackle managerial challenges as he or she was in your shoes not too long ago.
Be transparent: from time to time team members will bring unreasonable grievances, ask you to do things that you are not comfortable with or exercise authority outside the scope of your role (exercise personal favors, change the project requirements, etc.). This is where communication and boundaries are so important: be transparent about what you will and will not do. For example: an employee may complain about the project because he or she does not like the workload involved. Acknowledge the frustration, remind them of their responsibilities and offer help as part of your role as manager. “I can see that you are frustrated about this. It’s not fun but unfortunately, we have to get this done because of xyz. Is there any way I could help?” Another employee may ask you to take his or her side of the argument because you are friends. Don’t dismiss the friendship but also remind them of the work-personal boundaries. “I respect and appreciate you as a friend. However, as your supervisor it will be unprofessional of me to take sides. Let’s think together if there’s another way we can solve this problem?”
Give before receiving: reciprocity is an important social norm that can help you build trust and credibility with your team (see the Credibility Guide for more practical advice on this topic). You were selected for your role for a reason: you are good at some things that team members are not. Whether it is technical knowledge, superior communication or strategic thinking, these are all valuable skills that you can coach your team members on to help them be more successful. Offer them support and access to information in exchange for their support and expertise.
Find new work friends: sometimes friendships with employees can become too complicated because of the reasons previously mentioned and you will have to give up your expectations of being bffs with your team. As a manager you will not be able to share some critical information and your team may feel betrayed. You may have to say NO and take hard decisions, thereby disappointing your friend on the team. You will also face new challenges that your team members will not understand or be able to relate to. It is, therefore, important to find friends who are at the same level, either inside the organization or outside of it. Branching out will allow you to have better professional boundaries with your team while sharing experiences with peers who are going through the same growing pains.
Transitioning from peer to boss is not easy and it may take some time to get it right. The tips above can help you manage some of the thought process about how to approach this more strategically.