What to Do First When Managing Former Peers

Posted on October 3, 2016

You just learned that you’ve been promoted and will now be managing a team of your former peers — exciting news! That is, until the moment you realize that your good fortune means disappointment for your coworkers who didn’t get the job. When you’re promoted over people who have always been friends (or rivals), the power relationship is inevitably altered.

I’ve been working with teams for two decades, and the one thing I can almost guarantee is that there will be awkward moments as you transition from team member to team leader. But these three things can help ease your transition: one-on-one meetings with individuals, a team planning session, and swift intervention with resistant individuals. Here’s how to go about it:

First, meet one-on-one with each member of the team. By having your first boss-subordinate conversations individually, you’ll be able to personalize the message and be more candid than you can be in a group setting. Spend considerable time in each meeting listening to your new direct report. Ask questions such as “Take me through your objectives and where things are?” “Are there any specific areas where you would like my support?” “Tell me about your development planning and any career conversations you have been having.” Listen carefully to the answers and always rephrase and summarize to make sure you’re getting the right messages. That will allow them to relax and realize you haven’t transformed into a maniacal manager.

Many newly promoted leaders make the mistake of stopping there. If you’re going to establish yourself as the boss, you need to balance the friendly and inclusive approach with some signs of strength. That will give everyone confidence that the team is in good hands. You don’t need to provide much detail, but do share your early vision for the team and any priorities that you will tackle first. Make room for comments and questions so your team members feel like coauthors of the plan.

At the end of each one-on-one meeting, enlist the support of individuals by asking for specific help in areas where they can add value. Everyone knows that you went from being a peer to being the boss overnight, and pretending that you suddenly have all the answers will damage your credibility. Ask for assistance in a genuine way that makes your direct reports feel valuable and engaged. For example: “Juan, you’ve always been the software expert. I need your help to get up to speed and to make sure I’m keeping the software issues top of mind.”

Next, it’s time for your first team meeting. If possible, try to make it a special format; ideally longer than normal and in a unique setting such as a conference center outside of town or a room in your office with couches instead of tables. If you can spend an afternoon and then go out socially after, it works even better.

Start by discussing the purpose of the team. Because you’ve already been a part of the team, you have all of the background. But this is the chance to evolve the mandate in accordance with changing times. Bring in some of the ideas from the one-on-one conversations and engage in a discussion about where you need to continue on the same path and where you need to change the trajectory. By making some modifications to the goals or priorities of the team, you will demonstrate that you’re not just a steward of the former boss’ plan but a leader in your own right.

Based on the mandate you develop, discuss the ideal meeting cadence for the team. What are the different types of meetings you’ll need, how frequently do you need them, and with what durations? Meetings are often associated with the leaders who established them, so setting out your own meeting formats and times goes a long way toward ushering in the new era under your leadership.

Finally, spend some time explaining how you like to operate and what your rules of the road are going to be. If you can distill your philosophies into two or three guiding principles, it’s really useful. For example, if you know that the team tends to be somewhat passive-aggressive, be explicit about your expectation that concerns be addressed directly. “I want to be very clear that all issues need to be shared openly so they can be resolved. Please don’t come to me with an issue you haven’t addressed directly with one another first.” That way, if you need to deal with bad behavior later, you’ve set the precedent from the start.

By meeting one-on-one with your team members and then engaging in a conversation about the team’s role and functioning, you will go a long way toward establishing your leadership. Be open and demonstrate that you are listening and learning but don’t make the mistake of being wishy-washy in hopes of not ruffling any feathers.

Those two steps will get you off to a good start. If (or more likely, when) there are challenges to your role or your authority, be sure to deal with them swiftly and firmly. Here are a few examples of overt and covert challenges to your leadership role and what to do:

A decision is made without your knowledge. If you learn that a decision has been made that you should have been privy to, talk with the person and make your displeasure clear. “I just learned that you authorized a reduced price for Acme. That’s a decision I should have been involved in. Let’s go over the types of decisions you can make autonomously and the ones I need to be part of.”

An issue that has been closed is reopened. Resistant team members will often attempt to reopen a decision as a way to test your authority. You can discourage that behavior with this approach. “We made a decision on that issue last week. What is leading you to raise it again now? Let me reinforce that we need to move efficiently and my expectation is that once a decision is made, everyone is on board and executing it. Dissent is welcome, but only before the decision is made.”

A team member resists your leadership passive-aggressively. Often, resistant team members don’t have the courage to challenge you directly. Instead, they show irreverence with subtle and not-so-subtle body language such as turning away from you in meetings, rolling eyes, or disengaging from the conversation. When that happens, start with a subtle response such as sitting directly beside or across from the person in the next meeting or walking around behind the person while you’re talking. If resistance persists, provide direct feedback in a one-on-one. “In the last couple of meetings, you have been sitting at the back of the room and only providing one word answers to my questions. I’m concerned that you’re not making the transition to me being the leader of the team. What are you willing to do differently to show you’re on board?”

A group of people gang up on you. It’s distressing enough to deal with one passive-aggressive team member, but that stress is amplified if multiple people are questioning your leadership or badmouthing you to one another. If you face this challenge, repeat the process of meeting with everyone individually and then addressing the issues in a team meeting. Be direct in your feedback and don’t be afraid to make people a little uncomfortable: “I am concerned that you are challenging my decisions and that your pushback is encouraging others to do the same. What’s going on for you? How do we get things back on track?” If there are things you’ve been doing that have contributed to the resistance, take responsibility for them. Use a team meeting to share the themes and then to reinforce the ground rules you set at the beginning: You expect people to address these types of issues with you directly in the future.

Your organization is demonstrating confidence in you by making you the leader of your team. Earn that confidence by balancing the humility to listen and learn and serve your team with the courage to assert your role as a leader when required. Valuable team members will adapt. Those who don’t may need to find another place to contribute.

By Liane Davey

September 16, 2015

Liane Davey is the cofounder of 3COze Inc. She is the author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done and a coauthor of Leadership Solutions: The Pathway to Bridge the Leadership Gap. Follow her on Twitter at @LianeDavey.