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Successfully Transitioning From Coworker to Boss

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do you handle a job promotion when you are promoted from within your peer group? I was recently promoted to a manager position and oversee the team members that were once my peers. What is the most effective way to transition from team member to manager?


Dear Promoted,

When I was ten years old, I was chosen by our elementary school principal to be on the Traffic Squad. As a symbol of my authority, I donned a purple two-cornered hat emblazoned with the name of our school—McKinley. I was feeling pretty full of myself until I discovered that my first assignment involved monitoring hand hygiene in the boys’ restroom. My visions of leading troops into heroic battles were dashed. Instead, I stood by the sinks with a No. 2 pencil and pad of paper recording the names of those who did not properly wash their hands.

Tedium turned to terror when my own beloved teacher, Mr. Collins, completed his bodily duties, tucked in his shirt, then stalked past the sinks without so much as a rinse. I was torn. My responsibilities were clear. My authority immense. But could I hold a teacher accountable? And worse, would I rupture our relationship if I brought Mr. Collins to task?

It can be tricky to assume a new role in an old social system. It can be as hard for you to see yourself in the new role as it is for others. If you fail to accept yourself in the new role, you’ll either shirk the leadership you have been asked to offer—or indulge your authority in a vain effort to convince yourself of your worthiness for the role. Neither option is good.

Likewise, if others have difficulty honoring your new assignment they may either resist or resent your authority. They may also expect special favors—assuming their former peer relationship with you entitles them to some of the benefits accompanying the new office.

How can you settle both yourself and others into the relationship? There are two crucial conversations you need to hold. The first is with yourself. You need to decide what it means—and doesn’t mean—to be the boss. When you’re comfortable within yourself, it would be wise to set appropriate expectations with others.

Conversation with self: Are you in your own way?

If you notice you are reticent to make decisions, hold others accountable, give assignments, or lead change, then you are getting in your own way. Similarly, if you find yourself needing to prove something by exerting your authority—making threats, giving orders, micromanaging—the problem is not others, it’s you. I suggest you spend some time pondering one important question: What does it mean to have power?

Does it mean something about you? Does it mean you’re smarter, more deserving, more experienced, or more important than others? Is it about privilege? Or is it about responsibility? And if the latter, what are your responsibilities?

I feel much more comfortable with authority when I remember that it is not power over but power to. It is not given to me as an intoxicating privilege, but as a special stewardship. When New York restaurateur Danny Meyer promotes a waiter to manager, he explains that his or her new position is like the gift of fire. “Fire is used in many ways—all analogous to your new duties,” he teaches. “Fire can warm. Your duty is to encourage people. Fire is light. Your job is to teach. Fire can cook. Your duty is to strengthen and feed. Fire is a gathering place in many cultures. Your job is to build the team. Fire can also burn. There are rare times when you will need to use your power to give hard feedback. But do so carefully.”

You will continue to be self-conscious about your newfound power so long as you think it is about you. When you come to understand that it is more responsibility than ornament, you will feel less self-conscious and more conscious of others. You’ll worry less about what others think, and more about what you need to do.

Conversation with others: Are they in your way?

Once you’ve settled this in yourself, you may find that others are having a hard time accepting you in the new role. Don’t feel intimated by that. Remember, this is not about you. Your responsibility to serve does not change because others don’t think you deserve the job or feel bothered in some way by the need to respond to you differently than they did in the past.

If you believe others may have some difficulty with this transition, talk about it. Have an explicit conversation either with key individuals or with the full team to set expectations. Share with them:

  • What you expect of yourself. How you see your duties and what your team should expect in terms of support, guidance, feedback, etc. What are your goals? What are your standards? What will be different from the past? What will be similar?
  • What you expect from them. Describe clearly what behavior and results you expect from the team. If you’ve seen worrying signs of behavior that will impede your team’s ability to perform, describe it. Describe why it is a problem. Be sure to frame the concerns in terms of performance and results, not ego and insult. Describe how decisions will be made. Lay out which decisions will be command (you’ll make them), consult (you’ll make them after involving the team), consensus (the full team must agree before proceeding), or vote (majority rules). Clarifying how decisions will be made will avoid future violated expectations or misunderstandings of your motives. Finally, if you think this transition will be bumpy, schedule in a follow-up conversation to check in with the team on how it’s working and to give them feedback on your views as well.

As I watched Mr. Collins leave the bathroom, I pondered my response. Was he flouting my authority? Should I make a statement by writing him up? Would he be angry at me if I invoked my full powers against him? Amidst the turmoil, something in my fifth grade mind quieted enough that I could hear past the din of my ego. I had been given an assignment. The only important question was, would I do it?

I calmly added Mr. Collins’ name to the list.

The next year Mr. Collins promoted me to Traffic Captain.

Best wishes in this exciting new growth opportunity.


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6 thoughts on “Successfully Transitioning From Coworker to Boss”

  1. Therese Staublin

    The bathroom monitor story needed to go a step further. Handwashing requires immediate intervention. Everyone should be empowered to speak up. It’s easier to give someone a gentle reminder of safe practice at the time rather than ask someone to be a “rat”. Supervisors need to be aware of how many fail to wash, not who. Supervisors need to be aware of repeated at risk behavior rather than single lapses.

  2. Debbi Walton

    Excellent article! Incredibly helpful. thank you.

  3. Andy

    Interesting article, “Successfully Transitioning From Coworker to Boss.” I would be interested in an article on the opposite, where my supervisor title was taken away and I was transitioned into an individual contributor in the group I used to supervise. Thanks!

  4. Karen Jones

    Great article. We have a lot of officers who are promoted to SGT and have difficulty with the transition. Could we have permission to duplicate and distribute this posting within our organization (with appropriate references, of course)?

    1. Editor

      Karen, please e-mail us at for a copy of our reprint guidelines.

  5. Nathan Magnuson

    Your personal antidote make your points really stand out!

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