The transition from teammate to boss is always a challenging one. I remember how I felt when, at one point in my career, I became a superior to somebody who used to be my teammate. He, let’s call him Jeff, was older than me and had more years of experience in the company then I had. I had the impression that Jeff did not consider me senior enough to be his boss. I still recall how anxious I was for our first one on one. I tried to imagine how I would feel if I were him. Angry? Unappreciated? Demotivated? “Why should a woman (and so much younger than me!) who has no experience at all with managing people have to be my boss?” “Why should I listen to her?” “How could I ever respect her as my superior?” I guessed that these might be some of the thoughts going through Jeff’s mind.
I started to prepare for our meeting. I had gathered feedback on Jeff. I noted down things I wanted to tell him and especially those that I wanted to ask him about. I thought I was well prepared before our meeting, and when it came, I started our discussion by asking him how he felt about the change. His reply was “Let’s keep emotions out of it.” I asked myself, “Does he only want to be professional?” “Does it mean he is full of unpleasant emotions he refuses to talk about?” My intention had been to show him I really cared what he felt and thought, and then he refused to talk to me about his feelings.
Thus, I continued with showing him respect and acknowledgement for all he had done so far for the company. I appreciated all the knowledge about the company he had gathered so far and had been transferring to the newbies, including myself some time ago. Without mentioning that I gathered it just a few days ago, I was also very specific about all the great feedback I had heard. I told him that for all these reasons I was looking forward to our cooperation. To understand Jeff and his motivation and job satisfaction more, I asked him (and he told me) what parts of his current job he likes and dislikes. I gave him space to ask questions and at the end I agreed with him on a few future steps for how we would work together.
And guess what… Jeff is the person I talk about in My Story – the one who had been a lost case for my boss and became successful under my supervision. Was it easy? No. But we ended up with successful cooperation after initial “refusal” to cooperate. At least that was how he sounded to me initially. But over time, I realized that acting in a highly professional manner had always been Jeff’s strength. In his mind, my asking him about how he felt might have seemed unprofessional. One could also interpret his reply as, “I am professional and will cooperate with you, but you cannot expect me to be your friend.” I’m still glad I asked the question, as it was authentic. I was genuinely interested in how he felt, I showed him respect and asked for opinions, and I continued doing that throughout our cooperation. But it was he who initially drew the line between “too much closeness” and “professional cooperation.”
Becoming a boss to former teammates who had become friends is, based on my experience, one of the biggest struggles many first-time managers go through. And they’re not always lucky enough to have “Jeff” drawing the line between friendship and professional cooperation. More often, they have friends who expect special treatment and then have a big surprise when it’s not OK to be late with deadlines or show up late to meetings. As a boss, one can still remain a friend, but when it comes to work, he needs to show clear expectations on what needs to be done.
But be careful not to go into the opposite extreme. There are managers who, in an effort to avoid the scenario of special treatment, or in an effort to succeed, or out of fear of failure, start to act in a way that is destructive to them as well as their teams. They start pushing too hard, or give unbalanced feedback with too much criticism, or they micromanage.
So how to do this right when your teammates are now reporting to you?
- Always treat others with respect. Care not only about what needs to be done, but show understanding, ask for opinions, and be emphatic to feelings your team members go through.
- Start by being open and straightforward about what is going on and continue to behave that way. Be authentic, be yourself.
- Tell the former teammates in your own words that this situation is new to all of you and things will change, but show your dedication to team success and appreciate their contribution.
- Be clear about how you plan to manage the team. Schedule team meetings as well as one-on-ones with each of your team members, at least once a week.
- For those of your team members who have been your friends, set the rules that will help you both keep the roles separated as much as possible.
In case you are looking for more support in becoming a manager (not only to your former teammates), try coaching, the first 20 minutes are free of charge!