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Mike Figliuolo


Going from Being a Peer to Being Their Boss


Published: Monday, November 14, 2022 - 13:03

One of the most awkward situations you can encounter in business is when someone goes from being a peer to being the boss. If you do a few things well, you can make the transition smoothly.

Life is full of awkward moments: the first kiss, an interview candidate having spinach stuck in their teeth, your boss catching you leaving the wrong restroom. When someone goes from being a peer to being the boss, there are two sides to that awkward moment—either you’ve become the boss or your peer has.

Usually this occurrence is an unexpected situation. Many organizations are actually wise enough to prevent it from happening exactly because of the weird dynamics such a change can create. Given that it’s unexpected, it prevents all involved from preparing for the impending change (which in turn makes it even more awkward when it happens). Many times such situations are the direct result of a reorganization or the departure of some individuals from the team, creating an immediate need to fill that vacancy.

There are three situations I’d like to explore: you become the manager, your peer becomes the manager, and you’re the big boss considering creating such a situation within your team.

Congratulations, Charles! You’re in charge!

It finally happened! You’ve been promoted. Congrats! Break out the Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante (you’ve got great taste and it show-ohs!). Oh, wait... what? You’re now leading the team that just seconds ago you were a member of? Weird.

Suddenly people you were “buds” with you become your subordinates. They’re instantly on pins and needles, wondering how you’re going to behave as their manager since you’re now clearly no longer a member of the gang. You’ve moved from the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. You’re no longer privy to the snarky jokes or inside gossip about what’s going on in the organization; you’re now the subject of said comments, jokes, and gossip.

I was put in exactly such a situation. I worked with three other hard-charging guys who were exponentially more intelligent than I. They knew their business units better than anyone ever had, and we all got along quite well as friends. We shared ideas and thoughts on what was going well (and not so well) in the organization, and we worked together very collaboratively. Then came the day of the reorganization, and their three business units showed up on the org chart as reporting to me. The first conversation was a little tense and anxious.

Everything worked out fine. How?
• First, acknowledge the weirdness. It’s the elephant in the room. Get everyone to say it feels awkward, and get them to commit to making it work (you have to make the same commitment, by the way). Acknowledging discomfort is the only way to truly focus on it and make it go away.
• Second, explain your leadership approach and philosophy (maybe even lay out a few leadership principles). Don’t lay it down as law: Simply state how you plan on leading the team and what your expectations are. Also ask what their expectations are of you and commit to meeting them.
• Third, let them do their job. They’ve been doing it well. In their minds, there’s nothing worse than someone (especially a “peer”) coming in and micromanaging them when they’ve been doing well before the change. Resist the urge to lay down the law or tell them how to do things because you think such behavior will send the message that you’re in charge. Everyone already knows you’re in charge! The org announcement said so! Such “in charge” behavior makes you come across like an insecure bully.
• Fourth, remember you’re the boss and no longer their bud. Yes, you can still goof around with them. But you must establish that fraternization line and no longer cross it.

Do these four things and the transition and relationship should go well.

Who’s the boss?!

It’s going to happen. The person you were just complaining to about your boss, the organization, and anything else you can find to gripe about is going to walk in one day and say, “I’m in charge now.” You’ll quickly hit rewind to review every confidential peer conversation you’ve had with them to look for things that will put you at risk or on bad footing with your new boss (who used to be your bud and your confidante). This is the primary source of the awkwardness mentioned above.

Get over it. Quickly. They’re your boss. They feel just as weird as you do. The best—and most appreciated—thing you can do is make their transition easy. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Give them a chance to lead. Show some respect. Support them. Make your expectations and needs known and candidly give them feedback when they’re being too much of a peer (wishy-washy) or too much of what they think a good boss is (micromanager). Help them learn how to best manage you for the best results. You need to manage up in this situation and show respect rather than gossip and undermine your new manager. Remember: They were your peer and friend at one point. Treat them as such.

You’re the big boss

You have a vacancy you need to fill. You look into the organization and can promote someone into the role, but it will create this awkward peer-to-boss dynamic. You can do it, but set everyone up for success. Sit down with the new boss and explain your expectations of the role and highlight some of the transition difficulties of moving from peer to boss. Give them ongoing coaching during that period of change. Sit down with the team directly and let them know you expect them to support their former peer, and acknowledge the awkwardness. Talk about how you’ll be coaching the new boss to ensure the team members can continue to do an outstanding job. Do your best to facilitate the change through the “weird” period.

Going from peer to boss creates an awkward situation for all involved. Acknowledge the change, keep the dialog open, and your chances for a successful transition go up exponentially.

First published Oct. 26, 2022, on the thoughtLEADERS Brief.


About The Author

Mike Figliuolo’s picture

Mike Figliuolo

Mike Figliuolo is the author of The Elegant Pitch (Weiser, 2016) and One Piece of Paper (Jossey-Bass, 2011), and co-author of Lead Inside the Box (Weiser, 2015). He’s also the managing director of thoughtLEADERS LLC, a leadership development training firm. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog.


Going from Peer to Boss

I am very familiar with this situation first hand during my Navy career.  Back in 1980 I was a Petty Officer First Class and arrived at a new shore command after a successful shipboard tour.  I arrived in July and there were three other First Class Petty Officers already at the command that were very much senior to me.  We got along great for a while, each of us having our own department to supervise.  There was the usual complaining about how the Chief Petty Officers created a "wall" between their subordinates and themselves, but for the most part, I did not perceive this.  Then one day in August our commander called us all in to his office to announce that the promotion board results had just been released and I was the only one selected for promotion to Chief Petty Officer.  Their whole demeanor towards me changed after that.  Shortly after my actual promotion in September, I discovered that the "wall" actually existed, but it was erected by the First Class Petty Officers, not the Chiefs.  Unfortunately, the situation did not get any better until each of those individuals eventually transferred to other assignments.  I later heard that each of them had eventually been promoted themselves.  I only hope their transition was smoother.