Seven tips for millennial managers now supervising their former peers

David Lee

One of the most common questions I get when doing management training comes from millennial managers who find themselves in the awkward position of supervising former peers.

New boundaries and relationship dynamics make it especially challenging when dealing with peers who have become good friends.

If you find yourself in this situation — or supervise someone who is — here are some suggestions on how to respond:

    1. Acknowledge the “elephant in the living room.” Let them know you can imagine it might be awkward for them and let them know you would appreciate hearing what it’s like for them. If you’re feeling awkward, let them know. The more transparent and “real” you are the more honest and real they will be with you.
    1. Ask for their thoughts on how you and they can make this transition as smooth as possible for everyone. Not only will you get ideas you hadn’t thought of, doing this signals that you don’t suddenly see yourself as better than or having all the answers. That alone will help allay their fears that you will become a tyrant.
    1. Avoid preaching the obvious. Few things project a condescending, patronizing, “I’m superior” posture than droning on about the obvious, such as: “We all have a job to do and I need to count on you… blah, blah, blah…” Any officious, formal, old school boss lectures are guaranteed to alienate.
    1. Ask them for input on what you can do to be the best possible supervisor for them. Just the fact you care enough to ask makes a huge difference. Also, you will get great insight into how to bring out the best in each team member.
    1. Address potential hard feelings if you beat out a peer for the position. If a peer also applied for your new job, depending on your relationship with them, you might ask them how they are doing with your getting the job. If you don’t have a particularly close relationship with that person, you might choose to simply acknowledge in a low key way that if they want to say anything about how they’re doing with this, you’re open to hearing about it. If you don’t believe they would be comfortable talking about this at all, then you can stick with the above ideas.
    1. If a former peer who you’ve been close to appears to be taking advantage of that friendship, address this quickly. You can do this without sounding overly formal or officious. For instance: “At the risk of stating the obvious Sam, the fact that we’re friends can’t get in the way of your doing your job and being held accountable like the others. Maybe I’m reading into things too much, but some of the things that have been going on, like _______ and _______ make me wonder about this… What’s your take on this?”
    1. If a former peer seems to “have an attitude” or is acting in some other way that leads you to think they’re upset, address it directly (and privately, of course). Describe what you are seeing and share your concern that, A) they’re displaying behavior you don’t want to see on the team, and, B) you wonder if something is going on with them — and if it has anything to do with the fact that you’re now in the role of supervisor.

How a discussion can bring long term benefits

When you bring up this awkward issue, it makes it possible to resolve the issue so everyone can move on and work at their best. It will also save you a lot of time, energy, and emotional wear and tear.

It also models for others an approach to tension and conflict that is more evolved and mature than most people have witnessed or participated in.

Discussing a difficult topic openly and transparently shows others it’s possible to talk about difficult issues and demonstrate how. While you can’t make someone else discuss difficult issues, when you model doing so, you encourage others to do so. This makes it more likely that they will bring up issues in the future, rather than engage in all the various passive-aggressive ways people express their displeasure in the workplace.

Thus, the short term pain you might feel bringing up these issues will bring you long term gain, both for the “supervising former peers” issue and future issues.

Now what?

  • Identify the issue — Is it simply the awkwardness that you sense or are there other issues involved?
  • Identify the “after picture” — What do you want from the team or from the individual? If you’re not clear, they won’t be clear.
  • Think of how you can bring it up —Then get feedback from a trusted advisor on your proposed approach.
  • Think of possible responses they might have and how you will respond — Involve your trusted advisor in brainstorming these.
  • Prepare your game plan — Finalize your thought process.
  • Do it — Enough said.
  • Debrief, celebrate, learn — Identify what you did that worked. Identify what you might have done better and how you can apply both lessons in the future. Reward yourself with a treat for having the courage to have the conversation.

David Lee is founder and principal of http://www.humannatureatwork.com. He’s an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of Managing Employee Stress and Safety, as well as over almost 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at http://www.humannatureatwork.com or contact him at [email protected]


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