First-Class Coach

Since being promoted three months ago, I've found my former peers no longer seem to want to associate with me.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

They assume that I've turned into the enemy overnight. Can I win back their friendship, and should I even try to do so, given that I'm now supposed to be their senior?

A: Although you clearly feel this situation very personally, your former peers are in fact conforming to a common pattern of group dynamics. When you first joined the group, it took a little time for you to become a full member, with your own place in the pecking order. Now you've moved on, you have disrupted this norm and the group will react by regrouping and establishing a new norm without you. They will also find it necessary to reject you as a deserter.

And, unfortunately, though the class system may be eroding in everyday life, the status quo within organisations is changing very slowly, despite efforts to create flatter, less hierarchical structures. The old them-and-us cliche between staff and management is still alive and well.

So what should you do to change the situation? The first thing to recognise is that you are not just 'supposed' to be their senior, you are now actually in that position, with its privileges and its obligations. One of your main responsibilities now is to encourage good performance in those who report to you. To do this effectively, you need to be able to both support people and challenge them. If they aren't doing their jobs properly, you have to be able to criticise them constructively. The closer your friendship, the more difficult this can become.

Managers who go wrong - faced with your situation - fail to create appropriate boundaries, try to curry favour with their reports and are indiscreet with management information. They lose the trust of other managers and thus give away their power to do good on behalf of the very people they want to be friends with.

Does this mean that you can't have friends among your former colleagues?

No, but it does mean you can't have favourites. Little is more divisive than to have a boss who appears to be in cahoots with a small group of people, who seem to gain praise and preferment disproportionate to their contribution.

A client of mine, MD of a small company, became concerned about the level of socialising between one of his managers and more junior members of staff. Not only was she going out evry week with this group, she was taking holidays with some of them too. He worried that she'd be unable to make the necessary tough decisions and follow them through. His fears proved well founded: she turned a blind eye to poor performance and caused resentment by her uneven treatment of the team, which extended to the level of the pay rises they received. My client was on the verge of sacking her when she resigned, apparently because she was not enjoying the pressures of being in management.

Though your group may be hostile right now, my sense is that they'll forgive you if you become an enlightened leader who understands the realities of their day-to-day life and uses the position of greater influence to improve systems and to ensure your people are fairly rewarded and appropriately resourced. After all, it's better that one of their own has been promoted than a new manager who might not be kindly predisposed towards them is imposed on them.

I suggest you make your intentions clear to your former colleagues. Tell them that you welcome their suggestions for improvements and that, although your role is to be mindful of the interests of the company, you'll have their interests in the front of your mind as well. Be a good listener and be fair in your dealings. Your behaviour will be evidence of your positive intentions.

At the same time, put energy into getting to know your new peers. Your fellow managers are the new group to which you've made a transition, and all the same patterns of group interaction apply. Some of your new colleagues may initially be sceptical as to whether you have graduated to be a true manager. Avoid too much fraternising with your previous group so that your probationary period isn't prolonged.

You're still the same person, just slightly more senior, and those former colleagues who are mature enough to appreciate this will still be your friends, even though your friendship will require slightly adjusted terms of reference. Those who don't appreciate you aren't worth the effort.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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