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  • Amanda Visser

How to deal with colleagues when you’re the new boss

So you got that promotion and now your peers are suddenly your subordinates. Experts explain how to make this transition easier for your new team.

Published in On the Money Management

By Amanda Visser

A team of peers may operate with relative ease when each member has the same rank, status and sources of power. When one person’s status or rank changes due to a promotion, this unspoken power dynamic changes too.

If you get that big job rather than your colleagues, some may be happy for you, but others may resent that they have been overlooked.

Katlego Kolobe, founder of Thrive Live Design, says all relationships have a power dynamic. This dynamic dictates how the relationships work.

“We must act and interact in correlation to our sources of power,” she says. Once a peer becomes the boss, their behaviour must change. But change is difficult for most people to handle and some may resist it.

Kolobe also warns against the new boss trying to remain “one of the team”. The power dynamic has changed and it will not be sustainable to ignore this.

Mark Murphy, the founder of Leadership IQ, says you can’t really control it if a few former co-workers becomes upset with you for getting the promotion. “Trying to discuss their feelings of anger is likely to make the situation worse,” he writes in a Forbes article.

The change in dynamics depends on the situation. If the co-worker has been promoted on merit and colleagues believe in that individual’s skills, then it is more likely that they will be supportive. Management’s decision may even be celebrated.

Industrial and organisational psychologist Ann Werner says if the team does not approve of the new appointment and there are others better equipped to manage it, then there is a good chance the new boss will be met with resistance: “There will be increased difficulty for the new boss to gain support and to make a success of the strategies and approach he would like to use.”

“Leaders who succeed will address behaviour changes in themselves and others. They tend to make the changes normal rather than avoiding them.”

Allow time for adjustment:

Kolobe says transparent communication and teambuilding processes can help the team adjust in the long term to allow for healthy new dynamics.

She suggests one-on-one conversations with the team members as well as team conversations relating to the change. “Leaders who succeed will address behaviour changes in themselves and others. They tend to make the changes normal rather than avoiding them.”

Murphy says the new boss has to be empathic, but does not have to get sucked into conversations about team members’ feelings.

He warns of the possibility that co-works might say hurtful things when the new leader starts talking about why former team members resent the change, or why the team appears to be angry. If the new boss tries to defend himself, he might also be tempted to say hurtful things.

“The net result of such a conversation is that there will be lots of hurt feelings. You will end up spending your days trying to repair the hurt instead of succeeding at your new manager job,” Murphy says.

Werner agrees and notes that the way the new manager responds to those who support him, and those who do not, is critical. Change always requires a time of adjustment and it is important for the boss to be sensitive to a range of natural behavioural responses such as envy, resistance and even resentment.

Friends of the new leader will not expect undue favour. And any “perception of favouritism” should be nipped in the bud, says Kolobe.

Create a supportive environment:

Help the team to adjust by encouraging open discussions about concerns and creating a supportive environment. Testing the water about the new group dynamics really means “sensing” them and applying strategies and incentives to reach an optimal “temperature”, says Werner.

Kolobe provides pointers for a new manager:

  • Take full responsibility for your behaviour, and understand the new team dynamic as the leader;

  • To establish your authority, ask for help from the human resources team, your own boss and from team members who are supportive;

  • Acknowledge informal leaders in the team to earn their “buy-in”;

  • Own your new role fully. If you try to remain a peer while having the privilege of being the boss it will not work in the longer term; and

  • Be considerate of the fact that resistance to change is not a personal attack, but rather a normal response to uncertainty.

Determine the new direction:

Murphy says the new leader should focus the team’s direction towards the goals it has to achieve. “When people have something to think about besides themselves and their own feelings, their energy can be directed more productively.”

He also advises new leaders to enquire about their team members’ aspirations. Despite the fact that they did not get the promotion, it is likely that there are other opportunities within the firm.

“Discuss their career goals and think about ways you can help them position themselves. […] You now have access to resources, insights and training that can help the team grow and develop.”

Werner says the mere knowledge that the leader cares about his employees on an individual level and how they fit into the team, and knowing how the new leader wants to use their skills, is often enough to win team members over.

Managers can also take inspiration from Japanese ideology, which focuses on servant leadership.

This is an inclusive approach, where the leader is on the floor with the team. Servant leaders help find solutions, check in on the team’s progress and provide guidance, feedback and leadership, Werner explains.



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