One of the challenges I faced when I was promoted to a management role was managing a coworker whom up until my promotion was a peer. Although she was supportive, it was uncomfortable and changed the dynamic in our relationship. We both knew that ultimately, I was now her manager, and that I would be conducting her performance evaluation. I struggled at first to manage the changes in our relationship. I find this is true for most leaders who shift to managing a former peer—many managers avoid the elephant in the room and because they are uncomfortable, act like nothing has changed.
Yet there is a great opportunity when this change occurs to redesign the relationship in a positive way.
Managing a former peer can be challenging and uncomfortable. One of the best things you can do when you start managing a former peer is to meet and discuss how your relationship will work going forward.
Begin the conversation by saying you value your relationship as coworkers and look forward to being able to continue working together. Use this conversation as an opportunity to form a partnership with your colleague. Then focus on asking questions to understand the person’s goals and challenges.
For example, you might say:
“I really value our working relationship, and I look forward to continuing to support each other. I hope you will feel comfortable sharing with me challenges you see in the department and how we can improve things. You bring a lot of experience that will be helpful in making our department effective.
I’d like to meet bi-weekly to check in on projects and support you with any challenges. I’d appreciate it if you could bring a list of what you are working on, as well as your biggest challenge at the moment so we can work through it together.”
Questions you may consider:
- What do you like most about your job?
- What are the biggest challenges you are facing in your job?
- What are your career goals?
- What suggestions do you have for improving the department?
- How can I support you?
- Is there anything else you feel is important for me to know?
Reinforce that you would like to have a relationship with open communication and that you welcome the person to come to you at any time. Discuss how often you would like to meet, and what to expect in those meetings.
Designing the relationship in this way will underscore your approachability and support for your former peer.
If you inherited an employee who is struggling or a poor performer, use the coach-approach to work through the issues. Start by asking the questions above, and then use the regular coaching session for checking in on progress, setting expectations and goals. Setting expectations doesn’t have to feel like you are being a dictator. Employees want clarity, and you are simply providing clarity for the person on what it takes to succeed.
One of my favorite coaching phrases is “I’ve noticed”. This is a very neutral phrase that doesn’t evoke judgement or defensiveness.
For example, “I’ve noticed you have been late to work four times in the past month. What’s going on?”
Approaching issues in this way opens up the space for the employee to share their perspective and makes the conversation interactive. It takes the pressure off of you to “deliver” a difficult message and instead fosters an open dialogue.
As a supervisor or manager, your goal is to facilitate, not fix. Many managers think their job is to fix problems and issue directives to their employees. The best approach is to facilitate the discussion and shift the ownership to the employee.
For example, “I’ve noticed you have been late to work four times in the past month. What’s going on?” Allow the employee to respond. Perhaps the employees says they’re having a hard time getting up in the morning. You can empathize, and then shift the ownership by asking a question.
For example, “It sounds like you are having some challenges sleeping. It must be tough to get up when you haven’t slept well. What do you need to do to make sure you are here by 8:30 each morning?”
The question shifts the responsibility to the employee and has them come up with a solution. It’s fine to share suggestions if an employee struggles to come up with solutions, but focus on using a facilitative approach as much as possible.
It’s not always easy managing a former peer, and your approach can make a big difference in how you interact going forward. You can be supportive and approachable, yet still be clear and instill a sense of accountability. Take the opportunity to redesign the relationship as soon as possible after the change so you can reduce the likelihood of awkwardness and discomfort.