By Andrew Forrester
So, you’ve been promoted. Those around you are excited to see you take the next step in your career. But how will your relationships change as you shift from coworker to manager?
“Daring leaders work to make sure people can be themselves and feel a sense of belonging.”
Brené Brown, Research professor, podcast host and author of six number one best-selling books
Two of the best things a job can offer are a warm environment and opportunities for upward mobility. To be able to work for people who appreciate your contributions and ambitions, alongside people you consider friends, can feel like a rare gift – at least until your desire for leadership experience overlaps uncomfortably with the rapport you’ve built with coworkers.
Picture this: one day, you’re spending your lunch break with a work friend, discussing office happenings, commiserating over professional frustrations, and, sure, complaining a little about the higher-ups. The next day, you’re offered a promotion, meaning more pay, more opportunities to lead, all things you’ve wanted. It’s thrilling, of course, but complicated, too, because it means that one of this job’s perks—the relationships you’ve built there—will be shifting and evolving now that you’re a supervisor.
What do you do? How do you navigate this new role and your relationships with the people who knew you way back when?
If a manager role might be in your future, it’s time to start prepping now. Anyone who’s worked in an office setting knows how easy it can be to complain to colleagues or slip into office gossip. But ask yourself, are these things I would discuss if I were a manager? If the answer is no, take a step back. A little leg work now, setting clear expectations for the kinds of things you will and won’t talk about, will mean fewer changes when promotions come around.
Consider, too, how you’ll approach social media. Even when they’re painstakingly edited and carefully curated, our online accounts are windows into our personal lives that might not always be appropriate for sharing when it comes to leaders and team members. If the possibility of a managerial role is anywhere on the horizon, it’s worth developing boundaries that separate the personal and professional now; it might seem excessive, but avoiding online engagement with coworkers altogether is a good start, and it can help prevent awkward de-friending situations down the line.
Acknowledge the Weirdness
When we undergo major life events, we expect to talk about it. Work relationships are no different than our more casual connections: if someone gets engaged, loses a loved one, has a child, or, heck, gets a new haircut, it would be odd if someone didn’t say something. When showing up to work with a new title, the onus is on you to broach the subject with your friends. They may be feeling excited for you, or nervous about what the change means for them, or awkward about how to act, all of which gives you your first opportunity to behave as a leader should, by acknowledging the change and any weirdness it may create.
Simply putting this truth into words (“things are a little different between us now, and it feels a little odd”) gives everyone the freedom to feel what they’re already feeling. It opens up lines of communication, allowing room for the next steps in the process. And it demonstrates that, promotion or not, you’re still a human being.
Carry this principle with you going forward, too. There will be bumps in the road, moments when you have to provide difficult feedback or express unmet expectations. Simply recognizing a thing’s awkwardness, while still maintaining a sense of professionalism and authority, goes a long way.
Manage Your Own Expectations
Don’t be surprised if your former peers behave differently now that your job might involve giving them direction, assigning them tasks or assessing their performance. Your lunch plans might have to change, and if they don’t, the subjects of conversation certainly will. You might find that you’re no longer invited to happy hour or other extra-curricular social events.
None of this is personal. Power dynamics have shifted, and relationships will shift with them. It’s up to you to treat this as what it is: totally normal. And remember, you’re a leader now. You have so much to celebrate, and now is not the time to throw a pity party, but rather to manage your own expectations going forward.
Commit Yourself to Fairness
Again, the simple truth is that things have changed, and they will continue to change. Maybe you and your coworker will remain close friends, or maybe you’ll shift into being friendly. Both are okay, but what’s nonnegotiable is the need for impartiality. You’ll want to avoid even the slightest hint of favoritism for old friends, without going overboard. Nothing is more frustrating than a new boss who decides they need to throw their weight around.
The easiest way to thread this somewhat complex needle is by committing yourself to consistency and fairness: what’s true for one colleague should be true for the next, and hard decisions should be responded to reasonably and rationally—not emotionally.
It’s impossible to avoid uncomfortable situations at work, particularly as a manager. Being in charge of people means occasionally having less-than-fun conversations. But if you establish yourself as someone who communicates expectations and acts on them reliably, no one can begrudge you of that.
Lead from a Place of Vulnerability
Whatever the shift into leadership feels like for you, it bears repeating that your friends are experiencing a change, too. Suddenly, their coworker is less of a co-anything, and that can be especially hard if they perceive your role to have changed you in some drastic, unrealistic way. Rather than behaving as though wearing your new leadership hat has transformed you into an entirely new person, be the kind of manager you’d want to have. Essentially, be a real human being who’s open to suggestions, who asks for help, and who listens. Be the kind of leader Brené Brown describes in her book Dare to Lead: “A brave leader . . . someone who says I see you. I hear you. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m going to keep listening and asking questions.”
Going from friend to boss can leave you vulnerable. It means opening yourself up to the critiques of the very people most familiar with your professional shortcomings. A great manager will be sensitive to this and face it head-on by welcoming feedback and acknowledging missteps and imperfections along the way. Plus, leading like this will remind your colleagues why they were friends with you in the first place.
Andrew Forrester is a writer whose work has appeared in Parents Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Andrew also teaches English and creative writing in Austin, Texas, and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Southern Methodist University.
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