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Supervising Former Peers – Three must-do’s to make the transition easier

By Merge Gupta-Sunderji, MBA, CSP

(643 words)

As exciting as a promotion is, it can also come with a price tag! If the people you are now supervising were previously your peers, then the unexpected cost can be friendships. When you get a promotion, like it or not, true or not, there is a perceived power shift, and many a workplace friendship falters. And eventually, if not addressed, employee performance will deteriorate. So how can you handle the supervision of friends while maintaining peak performance? Consider these three must-dos.

1. Communicate Early and Often
Early in your new role as supervisor, sit down with your new reports and:

  • Acknowledge the discomfort. Say something like: “I realize that ever since I’ve become the supervisor, things aren’t as comfortable between us as they used to be.” Or: “It’s different between us since I’ve become supervisor, isn’t it?”
  • Admit the uncertainty. Follow it up with: “I don’t know what that means in terms of our friendship.” Or: “I’m uncertain as to where that leaves you and I.”
  • Clarify the difference between obligations and feelings. For example: “I now have work obligations that don’t always tie in with the way I feel personally.”
  • Finally, ask for the employee’s support. “I’d like your commitment to keeping our work responsibilities separate from our personal relationship.”

Your actual words may be different, but the main objective in covering these four points is to engage in a dialogue. While there is no way you can predict how the conversation will go, it’s important that you discuss your new business relationship. Don’t assume the situation will resolve itself, or optimistically hope it will not be an issue. Even if the person you are dealing with is the most reasonable individual you know, emotions come into play when a peer becomes a supervisor, and the outcome of this conversation will be more positive than no conversation at all.

2. Address the “boss’s pet” problem
Be mindful of perceived favoritism. Because of your past relationships with specific employees, others in your department will always view your interactions through a filter of favoritism: “oh, s/he’s just the boss’s pet.” If you are not alert to this reality, then your positive actions and intentions can be ambushed.

There are two approaches you can take in dealing with this scenario. First, involve the employee/friend in coming up with a strategy. Say: ‘Despite the fact that you and I have agreed to keep our work responsibilities separate from our personal relationship, there will always be others in the department who will view you as the boss’s favorite. How do you think we should deal with it?”

Second, discuss it individually with the people who feel you are showing favoritism. While this discussion will not be easy, remember that you need to have it; hoping the problem will just go away will only lead to failure.

3. Find a New Sounding Board
In your pre-supervisory life, when you needed to discuss an issue, bounce some ideas around, or just vent your frustration, you probably went to your friends within the office. Unfortunately, once you become their supervisor, this is the single most important aspect of your relationship that must change. You can no longer use your employees as a sounding board – even if they’re your friends. Discussing any workplace issue, brainstorming alternatives to deal with a crisis, or even worse, venting about your problems can only backfire. Not only will you negatively affect the perceptions and lower the morale of your staff, you will put your office friends in a very uncomfortable position. Hold yourself back and find someone else to go to for moral support. Look to another supervisor in your organization who faces similar challenges. Or, if necessary, try to find a mentor outside your organization.

If you take action on these three must-do points, then it is possible to supervise former peers and maintain peak performance.

Merge Gupta-Sunderji, MBA, CSP, turns managers into leaders by giving them specific and practical how-to steps to create high-performing, productive, and positive workplaces. Contact her at or (403) 605-4756.

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