Managing the Chain of Command

Managing people you used to work with side by side poses unique challenges — here’s how to ease the transition.

Most managers face a daily gauntlet of brush fires. But the tightrope walk tentatively trod by newly promoted managers, who suddenly find themselves supervising the same colleagues with whom they toiled side by side and enjoyed cocktails after work, is especially fraught with challenges.

Maybe it’s resentment from a colleague or colleagues who also applied for the same position and are supremely confident they could do the job better. Or the realization that you’re no longer getting invited out for lunch or for post-work drinks and gossip.

Whatever the case, the dynamics of your relationships with these team members has been irrevocably altered; few things shift the balance of workplace relationships more than gaining the power to fire friends. And suddenly, the meaning of the old it’s-lonely-at-the-top cliché rings true and clear.

The new pecking order will undoubtedly feel awkward — both for you and your direct reports. It’s not easy to strike that delicate balance between fairly asserting your newfound authority and still remaining on friendly terms with friends who you probably commiserated and kibitzed with about workplace issues.

But experts note that you can employ specific strategies to help everyone on the team feel as comfortable with the “new normal” as possible. And if you act with quiet confidence and poise (after all, someone higher up believes you have the skills to do the job!), you can establish credibility without undermining yourself or ruining perfectly good relationships.

One-on-ones

One of the first things you should do is hold face-to-face meetings with each of your direct reports. Everyone must be included, lest you appear to be playing favorites with colleagues who already are close friends. As you talk, it’s important to clear the air about any possible resentments or other negative emotions. If they’re mad about being passed over for the job, let them know you still value their skills and will be a strong advocate for their professional development.

During the meeting, be sure to practice good, active listening skills (there’s a reason you have two ears and only one mouth). Let angry employees vent; often times, all they want is an opportunity to be heard, which helps them let go of whatever animosity or uncertainty they might feel about the situation.

During these meetings, you can build credibility and respect by diplomatically asking them about what they perceive as your weaknesses. If nothing else, this shows you’re willing to accept input; the last thing you want to do is come off as the newly-minted-yet-all-knowing manager. Also, ask them where they’d like to have more support and the kind of career path they envision.

Moreover, if you’ve worked with your new direct reports for a while, by now you have a pretty good idea about their strengths and weaknesses. That will help you provide them with training to shore up those weaknesses and delegate some responsibilities that play to their strengths. All this contributes to establishing you as a credible and empathetic leader who’s concerned about your employees’ development.

Follow the individual meetings with a team meeting, where you can present your vision for the team, your approach to leadership and your expectations going forward, preferably in short brushstrokes — less is more here. And be sure to explain how all those things align with corporate goals. This meeting also presents a great opportunity to present some of the ideas gleaned from the one-on-one meetings (give credit where credit is due, of course).

Take it slow

As a former worker bee, you undoubtedly have developed some strong ideas about changes you’d like to make. But resist the temptation to make your mark with dramatic shifts in procedures and policies. Moving too fast, as well as not asking for input, are two sure ways to turn people off and undermine your credibility.

Moreover, there’s always a chance that a disgruntled employee who was passed over for the position won’t be able to let it go. Perhaps they’ll test you by bringing up old issues that have already been resolved. Or talking about you behind your back. Or making irreverent remarks during meetings.

The key here is quick action — don’t allow things to fester. Hold another one-on-one meeting and tell the employee what you’ve observed and how it affects team dynamics. Then pull their feet closer to the fire and ask them what’s provoking these actions and what it will take to stop them. It’s not a bad thing to make them feel even a little bit uncomfortable here, as long as you’re as fair as you are candid. Asking them for a solution only helps promote buy-in on their part, after all is said and done.

As for socializing with people who now are your direct reports, it’s important to draw a line. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult — as well as unwise — to be both a buddy and a supervisor. At the very least, continuing to spend more time with certain employees creates the perception of favoritism, which can taint even what you firmly believe are fair decisions about things. At worst, it can make things very uncomfortable if the need arises for disciplinary action.

Perception is everything

The bottom line: You still can — and should — treat people with warmth and respect. But if you’re going to be social, be equally social with everyone. And if a close friend has trouble dealing with new line drawn in the sand, talk about it.

As you grow into the new role, don’t hesitate to lean on previous managers for advice. And it never hurts to take a step back and contemplate what you liked and didn’t like about those managers and use that knowledge to forge your own path and develop your own leadership style.

In the end, there’s no magic button you can push to ease that awkward transition from team member to team leader. But employing these strategies just might make those initial steps on that tightrope a little bit easier.



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