Ask HR: How Can I Supervise My Former Peers?

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP November 24, 2021
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Ask HR: How Can I Supervise My Former Peers?

​SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.

I was recently promoted to a position that requires me to supervise people who were previously my peers. What advice do you have for handling the new reality? What kind of boundaries should I have for my work relationships? —Hans

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Congratulations on your promotion! New challenges inherently accompany new responsibilities. Your willingness to embrace them will go a long way in determining the outcome.

Managing former peers presents a unique set of challenges, but it also opens up unique opportunities. Rest assured, there are several tools and strategies available to help you establish boundaries and maintain work relationships. Be ready to meet these challenges head-on.

Being former peers with the people you supervise can actually be an advantage. You aren't starting your position with a group of total strangers—you already know many of them! Lean into those established relationships by acknowledging the positives each person brings to the table. Even if you haven't had the best working relationship with all of them, you now have an opportunity to reset that dynamic with respect and integrity. Share your appreciation for their unique experiences and perspectives.

Clearly communicate your expectations. Share with your direct reports that you are serious about your new responsibilities, but temper that message by letting them know you support and value each of them. Let your staff know your personal relationships will not bias your decisions or actions at work. Each person should have a clear understanding of how they fit into the team picture.

Treat all employees equitably. Be sensitive to their individual needs and recognize their unique contributions. When giving feedback to staff, be consistent. Provide positive suggestions for improvement to everyone regardless of personal relationships. Demonstrate that you are invested in each employee's performance and development. Your staff wants to feel like they have an opportunity to excel.  

Even with all of the preventive measures you take, problems will still arise. Be willing to acknowledge and deal with them. When a problem is left to fester, employees see it and become resentful. So, establish channels to address issues as they surface and maintain productive working relationships. Have an open-door policy to encourage workers to nip issues in the bud before they grow into larger problems. Set the vision for the team and conduct regular one-on-one meetings to verify that everyone is still on track for success. 

Don't underestimate the value of empathy. Several recent studies tell us employees want empathy from their managers now more than ever. Employees want to feel like their manager understands, or at least tries to understand, their lives and experiences. In a recent survey, 93 percent of Generation X workers agreed that if they were seeking a job, they would specifically look for a company that demonstrates empathy.

Make no mistake, trust goes both ways. If you want them to trust you, you must be willing to first extend your trust to them. Certainly, equip them with guidelines, then slowly give them greater autonomy to perform their work as they demonstrate their acumen and reliability. Offer them the chance to contribute to their fullest potential and they will in turn appreciate and trust you.

Keep in mind, you aren't the first person thrust into a role in which you are supervising friends and former peers—and you certainly won't be the last. Other leaders and managers can serve as mentors or coaches as you step into your new role. HR is also a tremendous resource for professional development and training opportunities.

I'll add this: Be authentic and honest. Employees, especially the ones who already know you, can sense when you are being disingenuous. No matter the relationship, assure all workers that you want to see them succeed and are open to suggestions and solutions. 

It sounds like you are truly concerned about being a good manager and striking a balance between personal and professional relationships. Caring about your mission and your people will serve you well going forward. I wish you much success!

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