Making the Move From Worker Bee to Team Leader

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 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 larger company 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).


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