Tackling the rewards and challenges of a promotion
By Kerri S. Smith
My office buddies were the only people happier than I was the day my promotion was announced. "It's going to be so great working for you!" exulted Lynette.
Within weeks, that changed.
Production dropped. My tactful prodding was laughed off; my buddies, now my staff, knew I was uncomfortable reprimanding them. I insisted. They responded with hostile jabs, whining and gossip.
Natalie wanted special favors-to come in late and leave early. I was supposed to look the other way. When I called her on it, she said I was "unprofessional" and "turning into a ball-buster." Kimberly was up-front about leveraging our personal good times, telling peers that if they didn't do her bidding, it would get back to me. My happy-hour posse still expected me at Houlihan's on Friday nights, but now assumed I would a) buy rounds of drinks and b) share insider dirt.
One day the woman who'd promoted me took me aside. "Don't eat lunch with them anymore, quit talking about personal stuff with them. All that's got to end or they won't respect you," she counseled. She even suggested I start being rude, abrupt, and even unpredictable with my former peers "because then they'll start being a little afraid of you, and they'll work harder." I rejected her ideas, which seemed Neanderthal.
Then Lori, my most reliable staffer, didn't show up for a scheduled shift, although I'd confirmed the time and date with her. When it became a habit, despite formal warnings, I fired her. That night my roommate-who was Lori's best friend-confronted me in our peaceful living room, insisting I was wrong to terminate a buddy, no matter what she'd done work-wise.
"I cannot believe what a complete bitch you have become! Are you satisfied with your little power trip now?" she yelled. "Let's hope so, because our friendship is over! I refuse to associate with someone who'd act like this!" Slam! (her door). Slam! (my door). I began apartment hunting.
Within just two months my dream job had turned into a poisonous nightmare, costing me a seat in the carpool, a comfortable roommate situation and the goodwill of my staff. The whole fracas affected my professional credibility, too.
Where did I go wrong?
The first mistake was failing to draw new boundaries with my home girls, according to John Challenger, who heads Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc., an international outplacement firm headquartered in Chicago.
"Once promoted, you need to make it clear from the start that the rules of the game are different, as of today," Challenger explains. "You still want a cordial relationship, just in a new way. After all, part of being a good manager is getting along with those who work for you as well as peers and superiors."
I thought making a big deal about the power shift would disrupt our merry office family. While they were not close friends, my co-workers were my daily companions, and I didn't want them to feel like I'd gone Hollywood. But by not dealing with the inevitable power shift, I allowed them to take control; by insisting that things wouldn't change now that I was the boss, I set myself up.
What if your problem is that your best friend or significant other is now a staffer-if the personal relationships at stake are much deeper than work buds? Have a long, frank talk with this person as soon as possible, Challenger says. Be honest about why the situation will change your daily dealings with each other. It may be best to explore a transfer.
"If this person is really your friend, he or she will change to help you adjust to your new position. But if that doesn't work, help them find a job in another department. That only has to happen in the most difficult of cases, but it is an option," he adds.
Looking back, I realize it would have been better to speak with each of my buddies/staffers privately, within a day or so of being promoted. I could have said something like, "Our personal relationship means a lot to me. But our situation has changed now that I'm your supervisor. Our friendship is going to take a back seat to our professional relationship while we find a good balance that allows both of us to do our best work. And I need to be able to give you direction in terms of work, and to monitor production, and to support you as needed. How does that sound?"
You may not like what you hear in response, says Dr. Cathy Quinn, a Beverly Hills, Calif. psychologist. If their response seems negative, don't jump in. Instead, let the person talk.
"Listen to it all, then give them feedback. Suggest something positive, like 'I know this is awkward. But it is to both our advantages to continue to talk about ways we can have open, smooth communication and mutual respect. I appreciate your input.' Then ask for their input. This lets them feel they've been heard," Quinn says.
Don't make promises about how you're going to overhaul the department or make immediate improvements when talking to staffers, she adds. And remember to be especially perceptive when dealing with a staffer who'd hoped to land the job that now is yours.
Get the staffer talks done quickly so you can concentrate on three other important transitions, says Dick Grote, a career consultant in Dallas. First, make a small splash with a small success in your new role. Look around for something that you can do to "prove that you've got what it takes to do the job well. People need to say, 'oooohhhh, look what she did," says Grote. It's a great way to make management feel like they chose the right person.
Second, look around and find a role model who has your dream job. It may be one step above your new position or ten steps up. Listen to how she interacts with others in meetings. How does she handle someone with a stupid idea? Someone who attacks her idea? How does she dress? Note how much jewelry she wears, and her hairstyle. Are her conversations purely business, or a mix of small talk and work? How does she deal with superiors, peers and staff? Is she on task forces, special projects, or coordinator of the employee volunteer program?
If you like what you see, imitate. Incorporate what seems useful and successful about your role model's work life. Grote isn't suggesting you take on someone else's persona. Avoid being a blatant copycat. But try her approach on for size and see if it works for you. Pay special attention to this person's demeanor and dress. As shallow as it seems, people who look the part get the job, Grote says.
Third, utilize the lunch hour as a networking opportunity. Call the head of accounts payable and say something like, "Hi, I'm so-and-so, the new production supervisor. And I'd really like to find out how we can do things better in my department to facilitate accounting functions. So I was thinking we should grab a bite at Wendy's and talk. Are you free Wednesday?"
Most often, you're going to hear "yes" to your invitations, Grote says. "Lunch is one of the most critical hours of the day. Don't spend it gossiping with your former peers. Don't spend too much of it with colleagues. Spend it building your network."
How should you handle sabotage from a former co-worker angry that he or she didn't get the job?
That's a bad situation, concedes Quinn. She says there is "no completely successful strategy" to follow when talking with someone smarting over losing out to you. "You can't control the other person's feelings over not getting the job. It's important that you work on the situation with this person, but that doesn't mean providing therapy for them, encouraging them to vent or speculate on the political forces behind the selection," Quinn suggests.
Instead, say something like, "I'm sensing some awkwardness or discomfort between us since I became supervisor. What can we do to ensure we are able to work together productively?" Then listen to his or her response. If you hear something wildly unreasonable, say, "I don't know that things are going to go that way. But I will keep what you've said in mind. However, I don't want you to have unrealistic expectations about how far I can go to bring this about."
Bottom line: use your common sense.
"Ask yourself, how would I like to be treated in this circumstance?" Quinn says.