Managing your former coworkers

With clear and consistent leadership, it doesn’t have to be awkward.

So you just got promoted. Congrats! Moving into a leadership role can be an exciting and fulfilling career step. But it can also come with its share of complications. Whether it’s keeping projects on track or people in line, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the demands of a new position, especially if you’re managing your old colleagues.


One of hazards of leadership is neglecting the values and virtues that put you on that path. As you level up and demonstrate your leadership capacity, it’s important to stick to some of the basic people principles that got you here in the first place. Your former coworkers may be watching you closely, but with clear and consistent leadership, you can earn their trust and respect. Here’s how.

Ask for advice – and mean it.

Bringing your team into the decision-making process is smart practice: Not only does it improve the quality of your decisions, but it also motivates others to stand behind those ideas and implement them.

There’s just one caveat: You better mean it.

But when leaders ask for suggestions without really intending to follow through on those ideas, they engage in what psychologists have called “sham participation” – putting out a hollow call for ideas when a plan of action has already been determined.

This kind of deception wastes time and erodes trust. Once your former coworkers realize their opinions never really counted, they’ll quickly lose faith in you as their boss and doubt your motives for even seeking their input in the first place. Instead of winning support, you’ll enjoy up creating disappointment, confusion, and even resentment.  

To show your good intentions, be upfront about the decision-making process. Manage expectations by making sure others understand what needs to be decided, how information will be collected, and who will make the ultimate call. (If that’s you, then be clear about it.) People may not like the decision that’s reached, but they’ll respect the process – and you – for being transparent.

Reach a decision – and keep it.

Once decisions are made, it’s up to you to stand by them even when they’re unpopular. The rollout period can be fraught with grumblings, anxiety, and setbacks, but retreating from a decision not only weakens your plan – it also diminishes your credibility.

This can be especially challenging if you’ve been elevated to leadership from within your own team. People who were once your coworkers just a few days ago may second-guess your decisions, which can lead to self-doubt and insecurity. Even a hint of pushback can tempt some leaders to put projects on hold or cancel them entirely. This is the moment when you need to summon the courage to stand up and not give in.

I once worked with a leader who faced an early challenge from members of his team. They didn’t like his decision to move forward with a new feedback platform that required more frequent check-ins and documentation. But when this leader calmly listened to his team, addressed their concerns, and ultimately held is ground, he managed to keep the project moving forward without leaving others feeling left behind.

When promises are made and kept, leaders show their team they can be trusted to follow through. If new information emerges later, decisions can always be revisited – but now, it will come from a position of certitude, not weakness.

Pledge action – and do it.

The old adage of “say what you mean, and mean what you say” couldn’t be more true, especially for leaders managing former colleagues. It’s one thing to make a decision. It’s another to put that decision into action. The sooner ideas are executed, the better.

Once you’ve set a course in motion, it’s time to see it through. Project delays and bottlenecks create an opening for people to wonder and worry. Why are we holding off? Where did those resources end up going? And your former colleagues may start whispering, “See, I told you so!” To avoid second-guessing and uncertainty, get ready to launch as soon as possible.

Along the way, be sure to keep briefing your team to maintain clear lines of communication: Highlight upcoming deadlines and mile markers for projects. Give routine status updates. Create visibility by showing real-time results from the field. These are small gestures, but they’re great ways to make people feel informed and empowered.

To lead is to serve. Making the right investments as you begin your leadership role can make a world of difference to your team, especially if you have a long-standing relationship with them, When you serve others with clear messaging, consistent decision-making and candid communication, you’ll get better results for them — and yourself.

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