How to be a boss, not a buddy

By Rhymer Rigby

Managers who are promoted above their peers often find themselves in the difficult position of having to be a boss to former colleagues or friends.

Similarly, if they get on well with those they manage, it is natural to start thinking of them as friends.

So, how can managers ensure that they have the right relationships with their team?

Here are a few tips on how to be a boss instead of a buddy.

1. Expect change. If people are working for you, rather than with you, the relationships are different. If you struggle with this, think back to how you used to discuss your boss over a few drinks. Now, you are that boss. Your former colleagues will be less open and gossipy with you. But this doesn’t mean everything changes. You can still have good relationships with those who now work under you, and you shouldn’t let the power go to your head. Rather than expecting a radical shift, you should expect some differences, and you should try to build on the relationships and trust you had before.

2. Find new peers. You still need that peer group who provide support, advice and an informal sounding board. Now that you’ve moved up, you have a new set of same-level colleagues, and you need to form new relationships with them. If you feel daunted by being on a level with those who were, until recently, your superiors, you shouldn’t worry. Work matters will provide the commonality of interest needed to kick-start these new connections.

3. Don’t be insecure around those you manage. It was you who got promoted, not your former colleagues. Show people respect and demonstrate leadership, and they will follow. Remember, too, that not everyone wants to be a leader; many people are happy to be managed, even if they are considerably older than you. Equally, don’t be afraid to ask your team for advice, particularly if they are more experienced. Done occasionally, it is flattering and builds bonds.

4. Be scrupulously fair. When you were part of the team, you undoubtedly liked some people more than others. And this wasn’t a problem, even if they knew it. But charges of favouritism are something that those who manage former colleagues often struggle with. You shouldn’t be too friendly; you need to play it straight. If you show favouritism, you’ll undermine yourself as a manager. The best thing you can do is judge everyone on their performance, regardless of personal feelings. You may discover that those whose company you liked best as peers are not quite so much fun to manage.

5. Deal with jealousy. Former colleagues might resent your elevation. The best way to cope with this is to show an interest in their career development and advancement. Demonstrate that you do want them to progress. Be pleasant and decent; praise people for good work. If you have particular problems with an individual, you may need to take him or her aside. Here, you shouldn’t tell him or her that you’re sorry. Explain that the decision has been made, that it’s not going to be unmade, and that he or she needs to deal with it. Tell him or her that, if the problems continue, it could become a performance management issue.

6. Use your inside knowledge. Remember that having worked on a level with the team you now manage, you have a far better understanding of their strengths, weaknesses and goals than you would if you’d just been parachuted in. Rather than acting in a technocratic way, use this knowledge to empathise with, engage and motivate your team. It should make you a better, more realistic boss.

7. If you have to be tough, be tender, too. Sometimes you need to make decisions that the team won’t like, such as those that are in the best interest of the business, but not of those you manage. You might have to withhold sensitive information from them or deliver bad news. There is nothing wrong with bringing a personal element into these situations and showing that you care. Indeed, if you have good relationships with those you manage, they are more likely to take unwelcome news well.

8. Be a boss first. All the old clichés about being liked and being respected have a lot of truth to them. Friendships are relationships between people who (on some level at least) are equals, whereas the boss-subordinate relationship can never be like that. Good bosses often make decisions that have people, years down the line, saying, “I hated him at the time, but I later realised how right he was.” This kind of tough but fair stance is something people readily accept from a boss, but usually not from a pal. If you try to be a good boss first, you may, at a later date, become good friends. But if you try to be a good friend first, you will never be a good boss.

Rhymer Rigby is author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work.

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