I’m The Boss: How To Transition From Co-Worker To Leader

In his most recent article for The Harvard Business ReviewRon Ashkenas managing partner of Schaffer Consulting and a co-author of The GE Work-Out and The Boundaryless Organization, writes about the situation that occurs when a promotion quickly moves you from the role of co-worker and equal to boss and superior. If this happens to you there are two very important things to keep in mind: rapid re-contracting followed by rapid restructuring.

Well, first of all, what is re-contracting? Basically, if one day you are someone’s co-worker sitting one cubicle away and then you are suddenly in the corner office, social and hierarchical relationship dynamics will shift according to Ashkenas.

“Peers can joke around, gossip, gripe, and poke fun at each other. But when one of those peers is promoted, these behaviors need to be tempered. The former peer is now responsible for setting direction, handing out assignments, holding people to deadlines, assessing performance, and determining pay. Yes, she can still be friendly with these subordinates, but only to a point. Some amount of distance needs to be created so that the new boss can give feedback and make decisions that the former peers might not agree with. To do this, the new boss needs to re-contract the rules of her relationships with each member of the team; and if anyone cannot accept the new contract, then they will need to go elsewhere.”

Restructuring can then be a result of re-contracting. Most likely, the person who was promoted has to be replaced and open positions can come from people who leave as a result of the re-contracting, meaning they may not have agreed with who ever became the new leader.

“The challenge here is to not necessarily replace each position individually, but rather to look holistically at the work to be done, figure out the best way to match it with the skills of the remaining team members, and then see what gaps are left. Restructuring in this way brings people into the team who were not part of the old relationship patterns. More importantly, it provides promotions for the veterans on the team, if not to new titles then at least to new responsibilities or challenges. This too will create new relationship patterns that make it easier to let go of the past.”

Ashkenas reminds us that this will never be an easy transition but keeping the two “r” words in mind will help. Other things to keep in mind when dealing with this role change include:

  • Accept That Things Have Changed: Accept that you have crossed over to the other side of management. You may not be in on the gossip anymore and you are just going to have to accept that.
  • Don’t Act Embarrassed Or Unworthy Of Your Promotion: Don’t act like you just woke up one morning and suddenly got a promotion. You may think acting surprised makes you seem humble but it actually makes you look insincere which is not how you want to start your new job.
  • Stay friendly with your former co-workers, now employees: Keep in mind that the employees you now oversee are the same people you sat next to not long ago. Undoubtedly, you have personal knowledge of them and their families. Make it a point to continue friendly communication and exchanges.
  • Be aware of employees who may try to take advantage of your friendships: If an employee blatantly disregards rules or fails to adhere to company guidelines, simply because they do not believe you will follow through with consequence, you must address it immediately. Unfortunately, part of being the boss is reprimanding and issuing disciplinary action to employees who deserve it.
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