Managing Former Peers: How to Navigate Tricky Situations

Illustration of a manager with three employees at a table.

If you’ve been promoted to a role where you’ll be managing former peers, you may be apprehensive about the unique challenges you could face. Here are some lessons one creative professional learned about navigating these murky waters.

Congratulations! You just received a hard-earned promotion, and now you’ll be overseeing the creative team you’ve been working on. While you should rightfully be happy about the step up, you may naturally be feeling apprehensive or awkward about managing former peers, especially if they are your close friends — or adversaries.

During my career, I’ve been promoted to positions in which I was leading former peers. I’ve also reported to two different friends, one of whom I had been close with for 22 years. In these scenarios, all parties involved had to acknowledge that the professional stakes had been raised and then work together to establish new boundaries. We had honest conversations about how we would deal with manager/employee interactions like task delegation, annual reviews and other feedback, both good and bad.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t panic. You were promoted because you have that ideal combination of creativity, technical know-how and soft skills like communication, problem-solving and conflict resolution. So put those skills to use as you transition into your role of managing former peers. Here are a few ideas based on my experiences:

Don’t assume

Put aside assumptions about your new reports’ preferences and goals and meet with them individually to find out what they do and don’t like about their current role. This is also a good time to find out about their short- and long-term career development plans, especially if you’ll be shifting workloads or restructuring the team in the near future. Do they want to move into an art director role or are they happy with production work? Do they dream of overseeing other copywriters, or do they prefer to write the copy themselves? Are they looking to transition into UX design? Finding out early on will help you start to form a roadmap for managing your creative team.

Set boundaries when managing former peers

If you’ll be supervising a friend, meet with him or her to establish some new guidelines for your on-the-job relationship. For example, if you currently eat lunch together every day, explain that you will need to cut back on social time at the office. You may decide to invite the whole team to join you in the lunchroom if it’s a small group or make a habit of regularly asking individual team members for one-on-one lunches. Conversely, if you often lock horns with a particular team member, address the conflict head on and ask if he or she has any concerns about working for you that you can resolve quickly.

Establish trust

When managing former peers, it’s crucial that they know you will be discreet about sharing personal information and that you will not hold things you already know against them. It’s especially important for the entire team to recognize that you will not play favorites or share sensitive information with a staffer with whom you’re particularly chummy.

Don’t overdo it

Be sure not to overmanage or undermanage your former peers. Take a step back and think objectively about how you want to lead, what you want to accomplish and how you want your team to interact. Then apply those tactics fairly across the board. Your objective should be to keep morale high and the creative juices flowing, which will be easier if your team feels like you’re in control but also flexible.

Ask employees how they like to be motivated

While friendship is a two-way street, it’s up to you as a new manager to find out what motivates each of your direct reports. Do they respond best to frequent check-ins or prefer a more hands-off approach to their creative work? What type of feedback inspires them? If you’re friends with your team members, you have the advantage of already knowing a good deal about what makes them tick, which can help you engage them in a way that will allow them to do their best work.

Grow a thick skin

While some of your friends may be excited for you, others might be wary of your new role. If a former peer distances herself a bit after your promotion, don’t take it personally — as long as she’s still showing respect and continuing to be a team player. The person may be cautiously figuring out how to approach the new relationship, just as you are. And while you want to foster harmony and morale on your team, remember that being a good manager isn’t a popularity contest.

Managing former peers isn’t always easy, but managing people you haven’t built a relationship with can be equally difficult in different ways. So take advantage of the opportunities that come with familiarity and use caution when navigating the trickier hurdles that come with your new role.

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