What to Do When You Start Managing Former Peers

It’s a common scenario: The company you work at is growing. Suddenly, a new layer of management is created, and thus a new role opens up. Leadership in the company wants to promote internally, so you and a number of your peers apply.

Only one person can get the job and now that you have it, your peers report to you. Awkward.

Managing former peers can be okay if you have a strong relationship with them; they may even been rooting for you or felt you were most deserving. Those people will be genuinely happy for you, and ready to follow you.

Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

managing former peers isn't all sunshine and rainbows

There’s likely to be at least one person who resents you. They wanted the job. They may think they can do a better job. They may not have liked you before, and now they really don’t like you. They may passively or actively undermine you as a leader.

You may also feel uncomfortable as people who were your peers, who you commiserated and socialized with now report to you. The awkwardness can easily go beyond the walls of your office as your friendship has to switch between “friend-mode” and “manager-mode” on a regular basis.

Here’s a few approaches you can use when you face these challenges in managing former peers.

How to Approach Managing Former Peers

As a leader, the example you set is critical, so the first thing you should do is to relax and be confident. Your company chose you because they believe you are the best person for the job. Embrace that and use those feelings to help you take on these challenges.

1) Take the awkwardness head on

There’s no avoiding it. There’s going to be some awkwardness in your new role. So why not take it head on?

Your one on ones are a great time to clear the air. Let your former peers vent. Listen. Ask good questions and get their opinions.

Often, people just want to feel heard. By letting them air any grievances and talking about how they feel, you can then work together to address the awkwardness. Whether that’s because they also wanted the job or they’re not sure how this affects your friendship, you will be creating a dialogue around the issues. You’ll be removing the elephant from the room right away.

managing former peers means elephants in the room

As Sheryl Sandberg wrote about handling tough conversations with her team after her husband’s death,

“Once I addressed the elephant, we were able to kick him out of the room.”

If you come with an open mind, you may discover valuable insights. For instance, if they thought they were a better choice for the role, ask what weaknesses in your leadership style you could improve? This can both make you a better leader by learning what they thought you were lacking, while also showing you’re listening to them.

It also sets the expectation that just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean you won’t take their input. As Ed Catmull wrote of the value of candor in management:

“Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves.”

Having the courage to take on these awkward questions right away sends a strong message on how you face challenges and value their input. This is a great way to build your new manager-team member relationship with them.

2) Use your previous role to your advantage

If you have been working with your peers for a long time, you probably know them pretty well. That means you know their strengths and weaknesses, and you can set them up for success.  Delegate work that you know they can do well and give them the trust and autonomy to do it.

This isn’t just logical; it’s backed by research. As Gallup found in their “State of the American Manager” research, when people have the chance to work on their strengths daily, they’re significantly more engaged:

Managing former peers - lean on their strengths

Deloitte found similar, powerful benefits:

“…almost all the variation between high- and lower-performing teams was explained by a very small group of items. The most powerful one proved to be “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

Business units whose employees chose “strongly agree” for this item were 44% more likely to earn high customer satisfaction scores, 50% more likely to have low employee turnover, and 38% more likely to be productive.”

Furthermore, this can be a great olive branch.  No, they didn’t get the promotion you received, but you can give them a great project or responsibility they’re excited about. Even if they’re resentful, this can help melt away some of those feelings knowing you have their interests at heart.

This is also a primary reason why peer one on ones are so powerful. You build these relationships before you need them, and then are just transitioning a habit you already had into a more frequent manager-team member conversation. Even better, you’ll have more power to do something about problems you may have previously only been able to commiserate on. With that in mind, consider looking for new peers to connect with at your new level to get advice and build more valuable relationships.

3) Accept they may need to move on

Ultimately, not everyone may work out. If they’re too bitter about the situation, then even your best efforts may not turn them around. It’s not your fault.

As Jim Collins’s classic book, Good to Great, discusses, you need to get everyone “On the Bus.”  As he puts it:

“The leaders who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus)”

Make the best effort you can, but recognize it’s a two way relationship: they have to be willing to come around, too. If they’re not meeting you halfway despite your best efforts over time, tell them. Have a frank conversation in your one on ones with them about if they’re going to be able to be successful in their current role or if they’d be happier pursuing the same kind of opportunity elsewhere.

No matter how talented someone may have been before your promotion, if they’re now creating a toxic, negative environment, you have to make a change. This is especially true if they are a manager.

Gallup has found a manager’s attitude and level of engagement directly impacts the engagement of their team:

managing former peers the cascade effect negatively impacts an unhappy manager

This means their lack of happiness and attitude will infect their team, costing you all of their productivity and risking turnover for everyone.

Give it a few months to trying and seeing how you’re working hard to help everyone on the team. If they still aren’t cooperative, then you should be candid with them about applying for jobs elsewhere that would make them happy, or letting them go.

On the flip side, don’t give up on anyone too soon; if it was a close call between you and them, give them space and focus on those who are willing to work with you.

Fear of missing out is powerful, especially when a manager may realize they’re hurting their whole team by fighting you instead of collaborating.  If they see you helping others and acting in everyone’s best interests, they may come around. It just may not be overnight.

The key to handling any uncomfortable situation is to not ignore it. Engage your team and find ways to solve the problem. Talking about it and taking action are the only ways any situation will improve. That’s true whether that’s setting clear borders on your friendship while in the office, or helping someone get over the sting of being passed over for a promotion.

If you’re looking for more good advice on managing former peers, these 2 posts cover more great ideas:

What advice to you have on managing people who used to be your peers? Please share it in the comments.