Colleagues high fiving

Leading your former peers as a new leader

How to make the transition with ease

5 minute read
Colleagues high fiving

In an evolving business or organisation, promotions within a team are inevitable.
Yet, transitioning from a team member to a leadership position can be a challenging move, especially when the promotion requires working with former colleagues you may now be overseeing.

So, how can individuals ensure this step is as smooth as possible?

AIM WA Curriculum Development Lead Mike Conneely AFAIM said there were a few big challenges a new leader would face.

“People advancing from team members to team leaders need to embrace the responsibility and be aware of the various challenges they face to actively work to overcome them.” 

“These include personal adaptation, where some may face an internal struggle with self-identity, confidence and emotion, as well as interpersonal dynamics relating to the shift in relationships with team members," he said.

“Additionally, organisational expectations require a new leader to navigate their changed position, and understand the responsibilities and expectations.

“They must also engage in practical skill development focusing on the growth of new leadership skills such as delegating, decision-making and conflict resolution.

“Once a person embraces their newfound responsibility and identifies their own unique challenges, they can target ways to overcome these.”

Balancing friendship and leadership

For new leaders who may call their former peers friends, balancing the line between camaraderie and leadership can be an issue.

According to Mr Conneely, this delicate act needs to be treated with transparency, honesty and authenticity, as well as a commitment to maintain friendly relationships through the pursuit of leadership and management.

“One of the easiest ways to balance this is to identify professional boundaries that need to be defined or redefined and be consistent with the message you wish to send,” he said.

“There is no reason a leader cannot continue to involve themselves in social events.

“In fact, it can strengthen the bond with the team they are leading if they continue to show a commitment to all aspects of team culture.

“The boundary might simply mean, if you’re someone who has usually engaged in social events, only going for a single drink on a Friday afternoon and not joining the group for a few rounds of drinks.

“This shows continued care and commitment, with an eye on responsibility at the same time.”

Managing a change in power dynamics

Further along, the step to success for new leaders is managing a change in power dynamics between former co-workers you are now overseeing.

Mr Conneely said new leaders must navigate this tricky dynamic change carefully and with patience.

“New leaders need a willingness to learn and embrace new ways of thinking by developing emotional intelligence and understanding what it means to have a psychologically safe workplace,” he said.

“An effective way to do this is to take time to identify the dynamic challenges of each person in their team and create a platform where transparent, honest and open discussion can occur with members of the team.

“The key is to lead a team where employees feel connected, appreciated and fulfilled in their work, which leads to increased performance and productivity.

Step into your new role confidently while maintaining relationships with the
Managing Your Mates and Friends at Work course.

“It’s also important for leaders to be mindful that the foundations of a friendship are the same as those of a good leader and employee relationship.

“Erasing grey areas by setting boundaries and closing the loop on thoughts, feelings and emotions, which may be shared or perceived through effective communication, will help with the changed dynamic.”

Mr Conneely said if the power dynamic was managed well, the new leader had credibility by knowing what they’re talking about from a technical perspective.

“They have also done the hard yards with the team, so they know what life is like on the tools and their team members who once worked with them know this,” he said.

“The trick is to help your team understand that because you know and understand their strengths, areas for improvement and the daily challenges in the role, you can advocate better for them at a management level.”

Learning how to adjust behaviour

Adapting to a new higher-level position requires a shift in behaviour to maintain positive relationships with co-workers.

Mr Conneely said this shouldn’t come at the expense of staying true to your personality or attitude.

“The best advice I would offer anyone moving into a leadership role is to remain authentically true to yourself,” he said.

“You were likely chosen to take on this role because of your technical capability or the potential capacity to positively influence other people – either way, you were selected because of who you are or what you do.

“Changing that or trying to fit a mould that doesn’t feel authentic will not work out in the long run.

“Maintaining positive relationships is much easier when you know what your true values and motivations are for leading others.

“The person leading the team shouldn’t change just because their role, responsibilities and day-to-day tasks have.”

Companies handling internal promotions

According to Mr Conneely, the most important thing companies can do when managing co-workers applying for the same management position is to provide open communications.

He said empathetic transparency was vital to staving off employee disdain and resentment.

“Be transparent and clear with employees when advertising and hiring for a promotional role internally,” he said.

“Make clear what the merit-based selection entails, and when a decision is made, explain with clarity, so those who missed out don’t need to join the dots as to why they missed out.

"Justifying decisions helps to alleviate the potential rumour, gossip and negative energy produced from one co-worker being overlooked for another.

“Simply put, if the decision is conveyed honestly and authentically with empathy and candour, the person receiving the bad news can use the feedback to grow and develop further, putting their disappointment aside.

“If the decision is not conveyed in the above way, it is highly likely resentment and negativity will be at front of mind.”

Learning to manage mates at work

Resources are available to support individuals transitioning from team member to team leadership roles.

“AIM WA’s Managing Your Mates and Friends at Work course is designed to equip supervisors, managers and team leaders with the skills necessary to navigate intricate dynamics effectively,” Mr Conneely said.

“Participants will be challenged to identify key work relationships and learn practical conversation strategies to articulate and manage expectations clearly.

“It emphasises the importance of setting and respecting boundaries within a team to maintain professional integrity without compromising personal connections.

“A significant focus is also placed on developing psychological safety and fostering emotionally intelligent leadership.

“It further explores how active listening and managing emotions contribute to a supportive work environment, enhancing team collaboration and trust.

“Blending theoretical knowledge and practical applications, the course ensures leaders are well prepared to lead teams with confidence and emotional intelligence, turning potential workplace challenges into opportunities for growth and development.”