June 14, 2016

Yesterday I was your peer, today I’m your supervisor…now what?


Changing dynamics at work add to already challenging situations. It’s not uncommon that individuals get promoted, and overnight go from being their co-workers’ peer to supervising them. When roles and goals change, the management and leadership style must follow; but tensions and triggers show up that accompany the change and often lead to confusion and conflict.

This is a big topic, but a quick and helpful tool is to know the basic ABCs of changing roles and relationships:

A is for Assertiveness. As supervisors, we’re required to provide feedback, make requests, give assignments, and set up expectations with accountability. We can’t be passive if we see problematic behavior, and it’s counterproductive if we try to express our authority with aggressive communication. Assertiveness is a style of communication and not a strategy for getting our own way. It’s a way of focusing on a mutually positive outcome, finding common ground, acknowledging our thoughts and wishes honestly, and not trying to control the way others see or feel things. Listening, understanding, appreciating and empathizing will go a long way towards bridging the communication gap if there is one. Then we can assertively request that someone complete a task, speak to us more kindly, or stop a certain behavior…knowing they won’t automatically give in to us just because we said so. Ultimately, they are in charge of their own actions, and we are in charge of our reactions. We can’t change other people’s behavior, but we can continue to modify our own in a proactive way to reach favorable results.

B is for Boundaries. Going from peer to supervisor means that we have to establish new boundaries and ways of being with our former peers and current subordinates. Before, we may have been close buddies with certain individuals — now, if we spend more time with them it may be perceived as preferential treatment or playing favorites. Still, we don’t want to all of a sudden seem cold, distant and disconnected. Distinguishing between personal and private may be helpful here. We may share personal information with all colleagues (where you’re going on vacation), but keep the private disclosures for out-of-work relationships (you’re going through a rough patch with your spouse). Acknowledging the initial awkwardness of becoming a supervisor to your peers may also do the trick and come off as authentic and sincere. Oftentimes, naming something and not dancing around it gets it out of the way faster. Also, because common sense is not common knowledge, if we spoke a different language other than the professional, mainstream office language with our peers, now that we’re supervisors we need to make sure our language and behavior is inclusive.

C is for Clarity. A lot of confusion and conflict is created by a lack of clarity. We need to get clear, first, on our new job description, objectives, goals and expectations. What are the clear differences between our role before and our new role as supervisor? Where do we now fall in the chain of command, and how is communication to be handled? Making a list of everything we assume to know, along with everything we don’t know — and then checking assumptions and getting answers — is a priority and precursor to sharing this information with our co-workers. Most times, we are not clear ourselves, and therefore can’t communicate clearly and assertively with others. When we know what is expected of us and what we are expecting from those we supervise, and to what ends, our body language is more relaxed, our expressions are light and humorous, and our interactions are positive and productive.

Lee Broekman is a communication coach and trainer. Her company Organic Communication, brings interactive, never boring, always edifying presentations and programs — focused on communication, collaboration and innovation — to your firm or organization.

Find her latest book Successful (Happy) Lawyering on

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