How to Manage Former Peers

Leadership and Culture: Part 3

If you recently made the transition from team member to manager, you understand that managing former peers can be challenging. You want to maintain personal relationships but aren’t sure whether doing so will give the perception of favoritism. Some of your closest friends may be on the team, which can make performance conversations even more difficult than usual.

At Gravity, we pride ourselves on providing leadership opportunities to our employees. We frequently promote people to manage teams they previously worked on or with, and we understand how complex these situations can be. In this article, we share some insights and advice, as well as perspective from Gravity team members who have successfully navigated this transition. We hope it will help guide you through your own transition.

Personal Ground Rules

Should you grab beers after work with team members? If your best friend is on the team, how can you keep that relationship strong without showing favoritism? Should you join in on non-work-related conversations you overhear your team having?

Even though every leader’s answers to these types of questions will be slightly different (and subjective), it’s important to come up with ground rules for interacting with your team.

Above all, seek to be fair and recognize that your actions have consequences. Like it or not, people will be watching how you conduct yourself. Be mindful of that and consider how your actions could be perceived within your team.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your interactions:

  • Happy hours: It’s common for teams to get together after work to grab drinks and socialize. When those situations arise, do you want to join? If you do, how many drinks will be your max and/or how long will you stay?
  • Social media: Are you going to be Facebook or Instagram friends with your team members? If you decide to connect with team members online, what will you do if/when you see one of them post something controversial or sensitive (e.g. a complaint about the company, an offensive comment, a lewd joke, etc.)?
  • Sharing information: As the saying goes, “Knowledge is power.” If you only share information about upcoming company/team changes with certain team members (e.g. those with whom you have a relationship outside of work), other team members may view that as favoritism. How are you going to communicate in a way that doesn’t create a knowledge imbalance on your team?

Gravity Merchant Relations Manager Phil Akhavan discovered the benefit of setting personal ground rules when he stepped into his first management role. “When I started in my role as a new manager, I didn’t have any personal ground rules for what I should or should not share with the team,” Phil says. “Because of that, I probably said more than I should have in some conversations, while in other conversations I came off as too guarded and unwilling to share. Now that I’ve been in the role for a while, I’ve decided on some ground rules for myself. One of those is that I won’t talk to other team members about someone else’s performance. I still maintain close personal relationships with team members, but I try to not share more details with members of the team that I have developed a closer relationship with.”

Ask others how they’ve managed the transition to leading a team for the first time. Find out what ground rules they set for their interactions, then determine your own. Try those ground rules for a couple months, then make changes as you go based upon what you’ve learned.

Others Who Wanted Your Role

If you just stepped into a management role within your company, it’s likely that someone else on the team wanted that role as badly as you did. Your job is now to work with that person to uplift them, support them, and help them develop a career path for their growth and development.

The best way to move forward is to have an honest, vulnerable 1-on-1 with that individual within the first week of starting in your new role. Acknowledge that you know they applied for the role, reaffirm their value to the team, and tell them you’re in their corner and will do anything you can to help them succeed. You can also look for an opportunity to let them lead an upcoming project or company-wide initiative.

Gravity VP of People Development James Pratt has also found it helpful to ask for help from people who wanted the role. He recommends asking questions like, “Would you be willing to be an advisor and help me identify blind spots?” Those types of questions exhibit humility, which helps the other person know you’re on the same team and can help each other succeed.

“How Can I Get People to Follow Me?”

It’s easy to get stuck on this question, but it’s generally the wrong question to ask. Worrying about making others follow you turns your focus inward (on you) when your focus should be outward (on them).

A better question to ask is “How can I help my team members do their jobs and attain their goals?” The more you focus on helping others, the more they will want to follow you.

Gravity Sales Manager Rosita Barlow uses John Maxwell’s book The 5 Levels of Leadership to frame her thoughts around this question. Maxwell says that people follow you for one of five reasons: because they have to; because they want to; because of what you have done for the organization; because of what you have done for them personally; or because of who you are and what you represent. Each of these reasons represents a new “level” of leadership, and the last one–people follow you because of who you are–represents the pinnacle, the highest and most desirable level of leadership you can attain.

Leaders often move through these levels in a linear fashion, and many never reach Level 5. That’s because reaching the pinnacle of leadership requires knowing who you are and what you value as a leader and refusing to compromise your principles to generate short-term results. Leaders with strong convictions and ethics inspire others to follow them, regardless of their background, experience, or past accomplishments. If you’re just starting out your leadership journey, it may take you some time to get to this point, but it’s worth considering what type of leader you want to be.

What “level” have you attained in the way you’re leading your team? Why are your peers following you?

By Bobby Powers, Head of Learning and Development

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