From peer to boss: 3 tips to make it work

A group of paper airplanes flying in the sky.

A peer-turned-boss is seldom a pain-free transition. This post explores this transition primarily from the manager’s perspective, and this is for two reasons: the first one is to offer some thoughts to make it work better. The second is to show the former peer where the greatest opportunities to make it work reside.

1. It’s often difficult for both. Let’s talk about it

When a new organisational configuration occurs and friction is perceived by both the newly appointed manager and the former colleague, the parties’ narratives often have one major thing in common: they rarely fully explore the point of view of the other person. The reality is that both parties are uncomfortable. However, there is a tendency for each to stay stuck in their own perspective. We can make progress when we start seeing the difficulties of the other side.

While the new dynamic starts playing out, it is usually for the manager, who has stepped into a new role, to show leadership by initiating the first one-on-one conversation. An open conversation could simply recognise that this is a new set-up for ‘both of us’. It could restate the intention to make it work well for both parties, especially if you were candidates for the same job. Acknowledge that we will now need to transition into a new configuration and put the first firm, unlikely to be challenged expectations on the table to gain common ground.

Remind yourself that your success in this role does not preclude or limit your former colleague’s own success. The first person on your team who is mostly disappointed about your promotion is your greatest opportunity to show leadership. If it is clear that the peer to boss transition involves processing difficult emotions like resentment (why not me?), leading with empathy is likely needed. Leading with empathy involves both understanding the other person’s point of view and feelings and offering deep listening (for example, asking and noticing ‘how is Nick feeling right now?’).

Once you turn a ‘situation’ into a success story, you have achieved a remarkable win-win-win: for your organisation, for yourself as a new manager and for your new team member – who may well be promoted one day and become your peer again. And they will remember how you made them feel.

2. Same people, different contexts: things have changed

Things have changed; the relationship needs to change. When a friend becomes your boss, a promotion means that the relationship needs to be adjusted to reflect a reporting line that was not there before. In the opposite scenario, say you didn’t really get along, stay open: the new setup does not mean things need to drag the past and stay the same. Sometimes relationships with former frictions as peers may land on new win-wins: just because it wasn’t great in the past, it doesn’t mean you need to replicate the same now. Again, different contexts. A brand-new relationship is a healthy way forward.

When the peer relationship included friendship, sometimes we expect the friendship part to continue. Say we used to go out together after work; should we continue doing the same? As a manager, the new perspective to embrace includes reflecting on this: would that be fair to the rest of the team? What are the adequate professional boundaries to put in place now, which of course can still incorporate being on friendly terms? As a manager, you are called to start a new chapter and lay down the fairest rules possible. To set new boundaries – for example, confidentiality. What we know from the past can turn into great insight to fast-track the building of a new successful relationship: what are our respective strengths that could support us now?

Often, both parties will have better chances of starting a new collaborative chapter if they are truly open to a new relationship. This shift in mindset requires translation into concrete action. For example, offering feedback that shows that we genuinely care about making it work. 

3. The relationship will adjust and evolve. Give it some time

Transitioning from peer to boss is not easy. It may take some time to get it right. However, as both parties find their way to a reporting line that was not there before, progressive adjustments will boost a new level of trust. Both parties will, at some point, express their respective expectations. From the manager, this will likely include how they can help. From the team member, that will likely include new work they would like to be involved in or career opportunities they would like to explore. If lateral moves are available and the new relationship remains difficult over time, chances are that these opportunities may lead to a win–win scenario.

Adding value as you go is a way to signal that you care about making things work. Addressing the right conversations (for example, around remuneration) when trust is higher signals giving time to both parties to adjust to the new dynamic. Considering together (and implementing) the concrete steps you’ll put in place to support your new report allows the relationship to grow.

This is a time where words and actions need to be particularly consistent: saying ‘I count on you to make this successful’ but not doing your part to support success may end up in eroding, not building, mutual trust. And as a new manager, a happy team is likely to be one of your greatest priorities.

Experiencing any of these issues? Find out how coaching can support your specific challenges.

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