Having been recently subjected to this situation, I’ve been reminded of what I’ve learned in the past about several ways of dealing with this potentially uncomfortable situation of supervising former peers.
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“When in Charge, Take Charge”
An old military expression used during the training of future leaders, “When in charge, take charge,” rings true regardless of which organization you work in. When you’re promoted, even if it’s to supervise your previous co-workers, the bottom line is now you’re their supervisor. It’s reflected in your title, in your job duties, and, hopefully, in your paycheck. Your supervisors will be expecting you to act no differently than any other person who might have filled the position instead. Will it feel unusual at first? It most likely will. I’ve been in this predicament more times then I care to acknowledge, but the important thing to remember is that you were picked to be their supervisor.
Most of the time, it’s a fair bet that your previous co-workers will be happy (or at least appear to be happy) about your promotion. The positive side of this situation for them is that they know who their supervisor is versus needing to learn how a new individual operates. The downside is if you didn’t get along with one or more of your co-workers, now it’s their opportunity to let those feelings become visible. This is where having a supervisor who is new to the organization would be more beneficial because typically new managers are approached with a bit of humility.
Regardless of the situation, it’s usually a good idea to hold a meeting with your subordinates shortly after the promotion has been announced and speak about your expectations. Communicating how you plan to support and gain insight from them is also a positive way to show you’re not coming in with the intent on changing everything right away.
Continuing from the previous point, try not to immediately implement changes unless they’re absolutely necessary. Although many companies tout how important change is, most people are not huge fans of it. Change is made even worse when supervisors move in and immediately begin scrambling processes that may have been in place for years. Waiting anywhere from four to six weeks before making a change to policy or procedure allows for subordinates to understand your leadership style, and hopefully to “get on board” with you as their new leader. When looking at a potential change, it’s always helpful to bounce it off your subordinates, especially if they previously were your co-workers. This is important because although you may have been potentially doing the same job as them, they could have a completely different view on the task requirements and might have some insight that isn’t obvious to you. The old saying “two of a trade never agree” holds true to this logic.
If you worked in a unit of 20 employees, typically you would only associate with a handful of them. This is not because you have a dislike for everyone else, but rather because there are some people we naturally gravitate to. But, when you become the supervisor of that unit, it’s important to make a concerted effort to spread your attention evenly among the entire unit. Continuing to have a closer relationship with some subordinates could potentially make other subordinates feel as though they are less valued. Additionally, it could present a false stigma for the “less valued” subordinate and make them report a “valued” subordinate for misconduct in the work place. The game changing part of being a supervisor is that socialization with subordinates must appear evenly distributed and professionally directed.
The hardest part about managing former peers is discipline. If you were close to the employee, giving them a write up is obviously going to be hard because of concern it’ll hurt their feelings, or that they might lose respect for you. It’s also hard if you had a previous co-worker that disliked you because, when you need to administer discipline, there could be some temptation to increase the amount of punishment rather than making it what it should be.
Regardless of the subordinate, discipline should be evenly administered and should not account for personal feelings. If the concern of favoritism is too great, it is recommended that HR at least be present to keep you on course during your discipline process (although this is recommended regardless).
Be Logical and Ethical
Being promoted above your peers can be a bitter sweet moment. But personal feelings aside, it’s important to remember that as a supervisor and leader, the logical and ethical considerations should always trump personal history. In the most positive scenario, your co-workers will be excited for the opportunity to support you in your new position, and will continually provide you with feedback to improve both your working knowledge of their job requirements, as well as improve the functionality of the work environment.
Donald Nickels, SPHR
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