From Co-worker to Manager: How to Handle the Transition

Posted March 29, 2017


Imagine the mixture of excitement and trepidation you would feel if you went home from work on Friday as a member of your team, and returned on Monday morning as its manager. But as it turns out, one of the highlights of a person's career can also be one of its greatest challenges.

Questions will probably buzz around your head all weekend. Will your promotion live up to expectations? How can you ensure you handle the transition successfully? What problems might you encounter along the way, and how will you deal with them?

When Colleagues Become Subordinates

Your most challenging problem may well involve your colleagues. Your longed-for elevation can give rise to unexpected complications when your former peers realize they are no longer your equals but your subordinates. This is a potentially awkward situation for everyone, and, if not handled with care, a perilous one to your job security.

So how do you go about establishing yourself as the supervisor of co-workers with whom you used to chat - and maybe even complain about the boss - around the water cooler or over a lunchtime takeout?

Making the Mental Adjustment

One of the toughest challenges in forming this new relationship is learning to see yourself in a new light. As David Pardey, the head of research and policy at the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) says: "One of (a new manager's) big problems is they don't know what they are anymore. They have to learn to be a different person to who they were when they worked alongside friends."

It can be very difficult to accept that your working relationships will change. Instead of simply being ‘one of the gang,’ you now have to take the lead and a greater amount of responsibility, an adjustment which will be especially hard to make if you have been promoted over other hopeful team-members who were also hoping to be given the role. Your success could well end up being resented by your less-successful colleagues, leading to drama within the team.

It would be all too easy to immediately reassure your team or department that nothing will change, that you are still exactly the same person who up till now was their equal, maybe even someone in whom they can still confide.

Remember: You are There to Lead

You may be tempted to play down your new role and claim you only took on the role reluctantly, that you didn't really want to become their boss, to wax lyrical about how hard your new responsibilities are going to be and how much you would prefer to still be working alongside them, not leading them.

You should resist this temptation at all costs, even if there is an element of truth in it. Your colleagues will neither believe you nor pity you, especially if your promotion also came with a pay raise. If you choose to follow this self-deprecating route, the opinion of anyone who also applied for the role - that they would make a better boss than you - will be strengthened, or even confirmed.

Even worse, this stance will undermine the team's confidence in you as a strong new leader who will be there to support, advise and guide them, who will take ultimate responsibility for coordinating upcoming projects or future campaigns, as well as for resolving any problems or other issues that may arise.

Clarify the Situation Straightaway

The first thing to do is talk to your team directly about the new situation, and to let them know that you intend to take your new position seriously. Phil Hayes, managing director at Management Futures, which specializes in leadership training and development, advises that you should never act as if nothing has changed.

"Don't pretend it didn't happen," he says. "You have to be clear about what your new role means. People will be affected by your new position and there will be feelings running around. You have to talk about it and give people the chance to express their feelings."

So, hold a meeting at the first opportunity, making it clear exactly what your new role is and encouraging people to clear the air but expressing how they feel about the change. If they appear to have doubts about your leadership abilities, reassure them by giving them a clear and full picture of any plans you have for the future direction of the team, or ideas on any improvements that could be made.

After all, there was a reason why you were promoted, so presumably you will already have thought through and explained to the person who promoted you how you will carry out your new role and what you will bring to it.

Have an Open Door Policy – For Real

Make it clear you will always be open to fresh ideas and suggestions, and that you will also take time to listen if anyone has a problem, worry or complaint. Remember to explain that as you are new to the job you will need their support and understanding over the coming weeks and months while you adjust to the position, so if your new team members feel as though you aren't organizing a project or handling a situation in quite the right way, they mustn't hesitate to tell you.

However, you should also emphasize that, although you will happily listen to and consider all options, any final decision will ultimately be up to you. You are willing to be flexible but you are not a soft touch. The last thing you need is your old team mates trying to put pressure on you to change certain things (such as their own pay and position within the company) and assuming you will automatically help them or do them favors because of your old friendships.

There's also no harm in reassuring everyone that you still enjoy their company and want to maintain the friendships you have made, although you must be very wary of being seen to have favorites. However, you should also clarify where the boundaries are - for example, you may be given confidential information which you won't be able to share. So be extra careful if you go for a few drinks after work that you don't let out any secrets or drop any hints in an attempt to show off!

Remember that your new position is not about trying to be popular. If anything, you may find your popularity levels backsliding, but try not to worry too much. Everything will eventually balance itself out. You are there to encourage and to lead others, thereby enabling them to achieve their individual goals and objectives as well as getting good results for the whole team. It's natural to want to be liked, but it's even more important to gain respect.


Avoid the Authoritarian Approach

On the other hand, some new managers may be tempted to take a more draconian position, to immediately show they are the boss by clamping down on certain behaviors, dictating how things should be, or even (on the more extreme end) firing a ‘sacrificial lamb’ in order to shake things up and show people who’s boss. That attitude can only alienate people and unsettle the team, says David Pardey. "Good managers learn to talk to people. Be open from the very beginning. Ask people what they expect from you as a manager and, in turn, say: 'This is what I want from you'."

At the same time, you should never be afraid to address bad behavior or poor performance. If someone isn't pulling their weight, you have to face this issue head-on in order to be fair to the rest of the team or department. The only way to build trust and earn respect is to be straightforward, open and honest from the start.

Remember though that if you criticize someone, you must also offer solutions or suggestions on how they can improve. It is also unfair to fire people or otherwise let them go without first bringing the issue you are dissatisfied with to their attention and giving them a chance to change their behavior - unless their offense is a serious one such as stealing. When you do speak with that person, make sure they know your advice is for their own benefit, as well as for that of the team, and indeed for the company as a whole. Never leave them with the impression that they need to shape up enhance your own standing or to impress those who appointed you.

Accept You Can't do Everything

There's also the temptation to think you have to be super-efficient, to believe you have to do everything. You might feel you want to jump in and start taking over every task to prove - both to your team and to your superiors - that you are in charge, and because you think you can't trust anyone else to do things properly.

But if you want to be trusted by others you also have to show trust. Contrary to what you might think, a tendency not to believe in the capabilities of others indicates a lack of confidence in yourself. It implies you fear being undermined, or that someone else will show you up by being better than you.

So another tip is to step back and just let people get on with their jobs, not try and do their jobs for them. Nobody likes a micro-manager, so try to relax and trust your new team to prove to you that you don’t need to check every project every step of the way. Your priority is to help others perform to the best of their ability, not to do everything yourself. The proof of a good manager is showing you know how to delegate.

Dealing With Issues and Disputes

A manager's role also often involves being presented with people's personal and emotional problems. Your team is only human, after all, and human beings come with their own sets of problems which are often completely unrelated to work. This can be very difficult, especially if the person is a former co-worker with whom you used to share worries and confidences. Although you should always lend a sympathetic ear, trying to give advice on personal issues can be a minefield - after all, you are not a trained counselor or therapist.

The safest thing to do in these circumstances is to refer the person to another professional, such as a human resources adviser or the company's counselling service. If in doubt, ask your own manager or boss for advice.

It is also highly likely there will be disputes between colleagues that you may be expected to help resolve. When people work closely together day in and day out, it is almost inevitable that conflicts will arise, whether it's a disagreement over who takes credit for a successful project, or simply a clash of personalities. Don't ever put off dealing with a dispute or try to pass the issue on to someone else, and never ignore it altogether. Leadership is about taking immediate action before a situation spirals out of control.

Resolving Clashes and Conflicts

Conflict at work can take many forms. For example, when there is an internal team dispute, a good approach is to arrange for all the parties concerned to get together in one room so they can define their responsibilities as a group. If one person is dominating the others, or if someone feels they are carrying too much of the weight, clashes can easily arise. Each person needs to be crystal clear about their role and what is expected of them, and it is up to you as leader to clarify this to avoid friction building up in the team.

Similarly, if two co-workers don't get on, it's worth bringing them together to discuss their differences in a calm, neutral setting. Explain that seeing another's point of view is a sign of maturity - it's fine to disagree but they should also accept the other person's right to hold different views. The best strategy is to ask them to come up with a solution together as to how they can work together without letting their personal feelings get in the way, so they don't jeopardize the quality of their work or the harmony of the team as a whole. If you step in and take sides or try to force the two to get along by using threats or emotional blackmail, it is most likely that one or both parties will wind up turning on you instead.

If the team has a complaint about an individual - someone not pulling their weight, for example - that person should be taken aside in a private place so you can make them aware they are not only letting the team down, but also themselves. Don't forget to look at the situation from their point of view - maybe they feel their individual strengths and talents are not being utilized, or maybe another, more forceful team member is dominating the project. The important thing is that you listen with an open mind before passing judgment.

Management vs. Leadership

Although the two words tend to be used interchangeably, there is a difference between being a good manager and a good leader. Good management is primarily about maintaining and steadily improving current performance by organizing a team to work together towards a common goal.

Good leadership, on the other hand, not only involves good management; it's also about having the passion and enthusiasm to inspire others. It's not enough to ensure that tasks are completed adequately and efficiently - it's also about motivating and galvanizing your team to only be satisfied when the best possible results have been achieved, and to take pride in their work. Whether your team is working on a new high-tech cancer treatment or simply working together as a janitorial team to clean the hospital floors, people intrinsically need to feel that their contribution matters, no matter what their salary is or how others see their job.

Being a leader also involves being innovative and flexible, welcoming new ideas, new methods and new approaches and not being afraid to try them. A good leader will develop a team culture in which everyone's individual skills and talents are utilized to their best advantage, and in which everyone's contribution is equally recognized and valued.

As the military leader and mathematician Grace Murray Hopper said: "You manage things; you lead people."


photo of The CareerBliss Team

The CareerBliss Team

CareerBliss cares about your career happiness. That's why we offer a variety of great tools and resources to help you make better-informed career decisions. We believe that if you're happier at work, you'll be happier in life! Check out company reviews, salary information, career advice and, of course, millions of jobs on CareerBliss and choose happy today!

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