Former co-workers: ‘You’re not the boss of me, old friend’

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Q: I just got a promotion to be the supervisor of my department. How do I get my old co-workers to accept me as their boss?

A: Supervising is tough. In the best circumstances you are the rope in a tug-of-war between management and the employees. Making the change from employee to supervisor is doubly difficult when you are expected to manage your former co-workers.

You and they know each others’ skills, strengths and weaknesses very well. If you were the person who they routinely sought out for help, making the adjustment to you as their new supervisor won’t be difficult.

But if you only helped your friends, or you competed against a co-worker for your new position then you probably have a rough road ahead. Even worse, if your co-workers think your promotion is a result of you buttering up the boss then you will have a very tough time earning the trust and respect you will need to succeed.

So what can you do? First, make sure you know exactly how much authority you have and what your boss’s expectations are for your own performance. Next, find out what your employees expect and need from you. These conversations may be difficult or uncomfortable; people you view as friends may not want to be supervised by you. You need to understand what their concerns are and be ready to accept their criticisms and suggestions. If you can avoid getting defensive and let people vent a little, you will go a long way towards defusing any tension or resentment that exists.

Meet with each employee individually and privately. You should be able to outline what you hope to do as supervisor and then ask your former co-worker if he or she will give you a chance to prove yourself and work with you. If someone hesitates or isn’t too happy that you got the job, ask what he or she is concerned about and then you need to listen. You may find that you don’t know your old co-workers as well as you think you do. And ask your employees what it is they enjoy about the work, get their ideas on improvements you could make and find out if some of your employees would like to develop new skills.

Don’t fight old battles; focus on moving forward successfully. You have to be able to look at your old friends and co-workers as employees now. Who you personally like or dislike should not influence how you evaluate skills or assign work. To gain everyone’s trust you have to be seen as fair and objective in how you treat each person. Everyone should receive feedback that includes both the good and the bad and you should be seen as helping anyone who needs it regardless of your old relationship.

Remove an irritant and improve the workday. Ask the employees to help you identify the things they would like to see changed. Prioritize the suggestions that don’t require big dollars and then tackle them one by one. So often a small change can make a big difference. Look at how the work is done or organized. Remove as many irritants and hassles as possible and the employees will be happier, the work will go easier, costs are better managed and your boss will be happy.

Know your numbers. Keep close track of your department’s work results and each employee’s work. The old friend who wants you to ignore a few of his problems needs to know that you will evaluate work results objectively, and numbers don’t change for old friends. If there are problems, let the numbers speak for you; numbers aren’t personal. If you have to talk with someone about a problem behavior, try to show the impact that behavior has on the business instead of critiquing that person’s personality.

Say thank you and celebrate. If the week went well and everything is running smoothly, stop and say thank you. Have small celebrations when there is good progress or somebody went the extra mile. Employees will support you when they know you appreciate them and will support them. And remember the old axiom: Always share the credit but take the blame yourself.

Virginia Detweiler is a human resources consultant and has taught business and management at Walla Walla Community College’s Business and Professional Development Program and at Walla Walla University. Questions for her columns can be submitted to her email address at wwcomplady@gmail.com. Those used will be edited to remove information that would identify the sender. She also can be reached at 509-529-1910.

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