What you need to know about the forces reshaping our industry.


October 27, 2016

What to do when your colleague becomes your boss

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on July 11, 2017.

It can be awkward when your peer becomes your supervisor, but it doesn't have to be. Stanford University professor Robert Sutton and author Michel Watkins share their tips on how to handle the situation with Harvard Business Review's Amy Gallo.

Get the tools to inspire your team to do their best work

1. Know things will change

Don't expect that you and your new boss will still indulge in workplace gossip or go out for happy hour, Gallo says. "You can still have a warm, respectful relationship," explains Sutton, but a good peer-turned-manager will create "social distance" between the two of you so that your new supervisor can effectively assess your performance.
Don't take it personally, Gallo writes. "It's what's best for the business, and ultimately, for you."

2. Don't expect favoritism—or a bad professional relationship

It can be helpful to have gotten along well with your new boss before, but don't assume you'll get a leg-up on work assignments, Watkins says. It may backfire to ask for special treatment or presume you'll have special influence, he says.

On the other hand, if you didn't get along well with your now-boss, finding a way to get along is "especially important now," Gallo writes.

To forge a better relationship, Sutton recommends two approaches: advocating for yourself through your professional network—such as "figur[ing] out which allies on your team or outside it can pressure the boss to treat you better"—and simply being nicer to your now-boss.

3. Create space for the new relationship

Ideally, your new supervisor should approach you about the changing relationship and lay out how you two will work together in the future. But if he or she doesn't, you should, Gallo writes. Things are different, and getting that into the open will help forge a productive relationship. "The goal here is to help your colleague accept her new authority over you and demonstrate that you trust her to do the job," she says.

If you're too uncomfortable to sit down with the person, it can be helpful just to tell your new boss, "I'm looking forward to working with you in your new role," Watkins said. It shows you're acknowledging their new authority—without forcing them to assert it.

It can also be helpful to put yourself in your new boss's shoes. "The more you understand the situation the boss is facing, the better off you are," Watkins says. Be patient with your new manager, expect there to be a learning curve, and help support this person as he or she transitions.

4. Don't become a kiss-up

When there's a new boss in town, it can be tempting to pour on the flattery, Sutton says. But it's better to establish yourself as "someone who is willing to tell it like it is"—even if that means delivering bad news or pushing back on some of the new boss's ideas.

"If your new boss finds that he can rely on you to be forthright, he's more likely to turn to you as a sounding board," Gallo writes (Gallo, Harvard Business Review, 10/24).

How to remove work from your managers' plate

The manager role is bigger than ever. Increasingly, organizations rely on the manager ranks to drive transformational change efforts—in addition to supervising staff and achieving business outcomes. Faced with a growing workload, managers are overloaded. HR and executive teams can support managers by re-scoping the role around the right work.

Join Advisory Board experts on Monday, August 7 for a webconference to find out how to uncover tasks to offload from managers’ plates, so they can focus on strategic work that advances organizational priorities.

Register Now

More from today's Daily Briefing
  1. Current ArticleWhat to do when your colleague becomes your boss

Have a Question?


Ask our experts a question on any topic in health care by visiting our member portal, AskAdvisory.