How to Manage People Who Used to Be Your Peers

An LinkedIn influencer post of mine that I’m cross-posting here.

Congratulations new supervisor! Not only did you get promoted, but now you’re supervising a couple of people too. Here’s the catch: the people you’re managing used to be your peers. Some of them have more experience than you or came in at the same time as you did. Whether they say it or not, they’re probably wondering why you got the title and they didn’t. Here are some tips for navigating this tricky situation:

  • Understand the motivation of each supervisee:
    • What motivates each person? More money? A promotion? Being team lead on an initiative or project they like? How can you use their motivation to improve your project/program? Perhaps Employee A who likes working on special project X can serve as team lead on this item. Perhaps Employee B who is motivated by a raise or promotion can be given a rough understanding of how s/he can earn that next promotion. Analyze individually, making notes if needed.
    •  Decide what carrots you can offer. What’s in your control versus out of it? Don’t ever make a promise you can’t keep (or that you’re reliant on others to keep).
    • Who do you perceive is open-minded about reporting to you? Who may resist? What are the reasons they’d be supportive or resistant?
    • Don’t assume that your analysis is accurate– it’s subjective and based in part on selective observation and your “gut” feeling. That said, having a rough frame of mind of where someone falls is partially helpful. You may be correct that employee A will be resistant– but your thought as to why there is resistance might be inaccurate. 
    • Based on your (probably limited) observation assess one main strength and weakness of each supervisee, with a  clear example to back it.
  • Ask yourself- why did I get promoted? You clearly had some skills that helped you get here- whether it’s superior analytical abilities, better problem-solving, etc. Identify for yourself what those skills are, and include clear examples. Write it down if you need to. You may need to share some of this with your new supervisees at the right time/place.
  • Ask yourself: what kind of boss do I want to be? Which past supervisors did you like working for and why? Which ones did you dislike and why? What management styles are you going to replicate and what gets relegated to the management garbage bin? How would you describe and define your management style? Think about it and reduce that to a workable statement you can share with your people.
  • Divide and conquer- meet one-on-one with your employees: Meet one on one with each supervisee, and tell them you’re excited to work with him/her in this capacity and you know this partnership will lead to great benefits to them and the organization. Make sure to meet OUTSIDE the office– either for coffee or lunch. A neutral setting makes people more relaxed.
    • Tell them that you see them as being a real asset in XYZ area. Ask them what they think about it. Remember that they’re feeling you out as you’re feeling them out.
    • Once you sense what they’d like to do on your new team, ask them what their concerns are, how they like to be managed, concerns they had with prior managers etc.
    • Reinforce why your new job is an opportunity for them to have improved management and opportunities. Remind them that you can’t be successful without them.
    • Show why you got promoted and how it’ll be useful to this person and the team now. e.g. “You know, one of the things I can do to be more helpful to you is provide more guidance during an unpleasant customer interaction. I know in the past some of us have felt that there should have been more support for that. I think senior management recognized this, which is why I’m in this role.” This subtly reinforces why you got the job rather than X.
    • If you sense resistance, ask about it: e.g. “I sense you’re concerned. Could you tell me what worries you about this?” Give them a chance to voice an opinion even if all they give you is  politically correct BS. It’s better than nothing. Then follow that up with “I understand your concerns and I want you to know how much I value your work and what you bring to the team. We need someone with your experience and knowledge in Area X.” (Be specific. Vague compliments are clearly flattery. Specific ones are a sign of how observant you are).
  • Accept that as you transition into the role of manager, you WILL feel awkward or uncomfortable at times. Just don’t show it. Management is as much about authenticity as it is about a strategic display (or concealment) of your feelings. Even if you feel insecure about this change, don’t show it. Don’t hover over people’s desks, or try to be overly friendly. Simultaneously, don’t change your behavior drastically now that you’re boss. There’s nothing that people notice more than a sudden change in behavior. Stay as neutral as you can. For a few weeks, this will feel like a trial, almost as if you’re watching everything you’re saying or doing. That’s normal– you’re settling into the new skin of being a supervisor.
  • Be thoughtful about any feedback you RECEIVE in the early days– you’re not obligated to accept all of it or make any drastic changes, but you are obligated to show that you’re curious and willing to learn.
  • Also be thoughtful about what feedback you GIVE in the early days– is someone doing something wrong that will objectively harm the bottom line or are they just doing it in a way different from you? Assess before correcting. Also provide objective data when correcting someone’s behavior, e.g. “Please re-do this report because it misses X, Y and Z field. We need those fields to be able to assess if the program is successful or not.” is better than “Don’t do it that way– it’s wrong.” Be specific, with clear logical reasoning. It’s not about you OR them. It’s about the work. 
  • That doesn’t mean coming down hard on people to prove you’re boss: Are people chatting in groups like they always did? Now that you’re managing them, should you tell them to focus on the work and stop yakking? In general, no. Pick your battles. Only intervene if it’s affecting work quality/output. Most times, you’re better off starting with honey rather than vinegar. Show yourself to be relaxed, open-minded, confident and curious. Focus on the work at hand.

Other Tips that are useful for ALL managers, but are especially helpful to you now as a new supervisor:

  • Constantly show your team how you’re taking their work and making it better. Or how their work is being used.
  • Do something they’d be afraid to do- present to a senior leader, give bad news. The true mark of leadership is whether you delegate challenges or own them yourself.  Earn respect by implementing the tough things yourself.
  • If you don’t know, ask: Just because you’re boss, doesn’t mean you know everything. Ask questions, learn new things, compliment those who taught you.
  • Accountability starts with you: you can’t hold others accountable for mistakes if you don’t own up to your own. Employees appreciate a supervisor who admits mistakes.
  • Cultivate trust: People do their best work when they feel safe to  try, make, and iterate. If they’re watching their backs and lack trust in their team or supervisor, you’ll get shoddy work because of lack of info sharing, collaboration etc.

Managing people who used to be your peers is a challenge, but focus on the opportunity that is. You’ll be a better manager for it.