Managing Former Coworkers

It's exciting to receive a promotion to manager. You're proud of yourself and your accomplishments, and rightly so — you've worked hard to earn your rung on the corporate ladder. Naturally, you can't wait to share your excitement with your coworker friends. They're likely proud of you, too.

After all, your promotion is real-life proof that they, too, have a shot at moving up the ladder. You represent possibilities and potential. But they are not your coworkers any more. And whether they remain your friends depends on numerous variables including whether you've moved up and out or just up and your former coworkers now report to you.

When an organization's promotion policies are clear and everyone follows those policies consistently, people generally perceive promotions as fair. Those who competed with you for the promotion may be disappointed because they didn't get it, but they will likely be supportive of you in your new role.

It's Monday morning, your first day as manager. You've worked for several years with all the people milling about in the coffee room. But now they return your cheery greeting with cautious reserve. They're not your coworkers anymore. You've moved up, and the ranks have closed behind you.

Your former coworkers now report to you and they can't wait to put you to the test. Not in a malicious way, of course — at least not most of them. But they now look to you for answers and action on everything from settling into the day's work routine to customer crises and scheduling snafus. From daily duties to performance ratings and job security, you hold their futures in your hands. They know it more than you do!

The U.S. military has long prohibited fraternization across rank, such as between officers and enlisted personnel. Though interaction and even closeness among unit members are essential for top performance, the military perspective is that familiarity undermines authority and the performance of duties. The military expects — and demands — that all personnel respect rank, the military management structure.

Use What You Know

Getting promoted within your work group is sometimes the greatest challenge you will face as a manager. Your key advantage is that you already know these people. You know what they like and don't like about the workplace and about the management styles that direct and regulate the work they do. You know what you like and don't like. You may even know what changes the employees in your department desire or expect from a manager.

You can use this knowledge to start off on the right foot in your new role. The four Rs can help you move from employee to manager within your work group:

  • Resist the temptation to make immediate and dramatic changes. Unless this is your mandate from upper management, staying the course until you get a feel for what it's like to walk the other side of the line broadens and clarifies your viewpoint.

  • Review existing procedures and practices. Meet with employees one-on-one or in small groups to ask them what they think works, doesn't work, and why. Ask what changes they would like to see, and keep the focus on the work. Take notes.

  • Revise one step at a time. Sometimes one small change makes a very big difference. Use a planned approach that includes some sort of measurement system. Incorporate suggestions from employees to the extent possible, even if only parts and pieces of what they've told you they want.

  • Recognize the contributions of your employees. Always share and spread the credit. All work tasks require some level of collaboration, cooperation, and synergy — teamwork. Upper-level management knows a good team happens only when there is a good team leader.

Handling the Bumps

The transition from peer to superior is seldom smooth. Your former colleagues, now your subordinates, may feel resentment toward you when you give job assignments and evaluate job performance. They may react in one or more of these ways:

  • Passive-aggressive behavior, in which they seem to be going along with what you say but in reality are undermining your efforts. Passive-aggressive behavior may take the form of doing only and exactly what you tell them to do, not telling you when problems arise or when they know a particular approach won't work

  • Frank anger, in which unhappy former coworkers may be confrontational or give you the “cold shoulder” or silent treatment

  • Sabotage, in which one or more employees may intentionally interfere with work flow such as by “losing” files or phone messages

  • Insubordination and refusal to do work

These behaviors may be subtle or outright, and there is no single best way to handle them. The most effective approach is to talk with each offender individually. You can work out most grievances by giving people the opportunity to say what's on their minds. It is important to do this in private; nothing fuels disgruntlement like an audience. Hear the person out before you begin speaking. Remember, most of what you hear comes from an emotional base. Say what is necessary to keep the meeting focused on work, but let the person have his or her say.

Do not slack on disciplinary matters! When an employee puts you to the test by violating company policy, ethical standards, or even laws, you must take prompt and appropriate action. Failing to do so at the very least diminishes your authority within your work group and at worst may make you complicit in the violation.

When it's your turn to talk, acknowledge the person's feelings and then move the conversation to work and a collaborative tone. Do not apologize for your promotion; you have no reason to feel bad about it. “I know you had hoped to receive this promotion, Frank. You've been here a long time and you have a lot of good ideas. I have some ideas, too, and over the next few months I look forward to meeting with you and the others to discuss our department's procedures and direction.”

When the behavior is a serious offense — violates company policy, jeopardizes customer relationships, or puts people at risk — you have no choice but to invoke your company's disciplinary policies. Because you are a new manager, you will want to involve at least your boss and probably a representative from your human resources department. Your company may stipulate other processes, depending on the contracts and working relationships (such as unions) that may exist.

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