You and your coworkers used to gripe about your inept boss together and plan elaborate lunches out. Then you got promoted.
Now you’re managing many of those same people and navigating the tense-shouldered transition from peer to boss. It’s a common situation, says Shawn Kent Hayashi, a team consultant and coach—and it’s possible to make it work for everyone. Here, Hayashi and other experts offer seven tips for leading your former coworkers.
According to Beth Bechky, who teaches courses in managing high-performance teams at New York University’s Stern School of Business, it’s easy for a team to assume that if the members of a team are still the same, nothing has actually changed. But now that you’re in a new position, even though you’re working with the same people, “that’s a moment at which everyone needs to reflect on what they’re doing,” Bechky says. She recommends meeting with employees individually and asking them each a simple question: “What do you think we should be doing?”
This isn’t the time to gently imply what you’d like from your employees. Bechky says it’s important to tell your new team how expectations may be shifting. Meet one on one or sit down with the whole group and explain what you’d like to see going forward. “It usually helps smooth these kinds of transitions,” she says—and it offers a reference point in case you need to re-evaluate a slacking employee later on.
Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School and the author of Becoming a Better Boss, says it usually goes one of two ways: either you try to pretend nothing has changed, or you come in practically shouting “I’m the boss! I’m putting my foot down. Now start getting things done.” He says the second option is much more dangerous. “It will spoil your relationship with people and they’ll find ways of subverting you.” If you veer too far to one side, he says, let it be the friendly, cajoling one.
Whether you know it or not, another coworker may have also been vying for the role you got. Hayashi says that can lead to resentment or even hostility. If you sense someone’s troubled by your new promotion, Hayashi—who wrote several books on how to have difficult conversations—recommends meeting with them in a neutral space (not your new office) and saying something like, “I was hoping we could talk openly with each other about what it’s like to work together in these new roles.”
You can even admit that you’re surprised to have gotten this job, or explain that it’s one you’ve wanted for a long time. Whatever happens, she says, “don’t get hooked in their defensiveness. They may need to see that you’re rising up and acting like a leader.”
“You need peers at your level with whom you can converse,” Birkinshaw says. Reach out to people in roles similar to your new one and ask them to have lunch or grab coffee. If you can’t find peers at your own company, try a personal coach or reconnect with friends and former classmates who are also managers now. “What you’re looking for is somebody to act as a trusted advisor,” he adds. “Someone who can give you advice on how to deal with difficult situations.”
Birkinshaw says that if you keep asking your former peers to have lunch, they’ll keep saying yes. “But it’s not necessarily because they want your company.” He says it’s fine to join lunches and happy hours with your old gang, but realize that it may change the dynamic and stifle some of their conversations. Give them time without you, and mix in lunches with your new peer network and new boss, too.
You’ve probably worked with this group long enough to know each person’s strengths and weaknesses—so play to them. “You get a pretty good sense of what motivates someone by working with them,” Bechky says. Use that intel to make the team stronger. She says that trust and familiarity are essential for strong teams, so if you’re working with a group that you already know—and you even like each other—that can be a significant advantage.
Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer who often covers topics in business, culture and higher ed. Follow her on Twitter @writermolly.