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Your colleague becomes your boss

Is conflict inevitable?

Jackie is reaching the end of her tether. Once again Andy is moaning. “Your communication is rubbish and you’re not motivating me – and that’s what managers are supposed to do isn’t it, motivate their staff?” Jackie is the first to admit that she still has a lot to learn in her first management role but she is trying her best. Andy is just being difficult. He is probably resentful because they’d been peers before she was promoted. His attitude is affecting the rest of the team and his performance is deteriorating.

Andy is fed up. He’d got on well with Jackie when they were peers in the team but since she’s been promoted things have gone downhill. She’s been dumping extra work on him and then micromanaging. He’s done the job for years and is good at what he does. Jackie should know that better than anyone. And the way she speaks to him - like he is a kid. She doesn’t treat the others like that. If this carries on one of them would have to go.

The Jackie / Andy scenario may be familiar to you. Two team members get on well, then one of them is promoted and suddenly rather than being peers one is managing the other. It’s a natural occurrence in the workplace but one that has potential conflict written all over it. Several cases that I’ve been involved with have a similar scenario. Typically the new working relationship starts off well with everyone ‘being adult’ about it. But fairly soon cracks begin to show and before long we are looking at a relationship conflict that is causing pain and damaging performance.

So what are the people involved in this situation thinking and feeling? It is important to speak to the individuals and explore what is going on beneath the surface as every case has its differences. Let’s say we speak to Jackie and Andy to discover what they are experiencing.

For Andy

  • Questioning self. The promotion of a peer makes Andy reflect upon himself. He also applied for the job, so why did Jackie get it and he didn’t? He is wondering where he is going with his career and is feeling demotivated.

  • Challenge to way of working. Jackie knows Andy’s job well as her previous role was very similar. Andy feels that because of this she is keeping a close eye on what he is doing which he perceives as micromanaging. It feels like he is not being trusted to get on with the job.

  • Unequal treatment. It looks to Andy as though Jackie is giving him extra work compared to his colleagues. Deep down he recognises Jackie knows his strengths and believes he will do the best job, but it feels like he’s not being treated fairly compared to the rest of the team. He needs to be acknowledged for what he does.

For Jackie

  • Establish new relationship. Jackie wants to redraw the boundaries of the relationship with Andy. She feels she has to maintain some distance as his manager so her communication has changed. She is trying a more directive style to make this clear – she wants Andy to recognise that she is now his manager not his peer. She wants Andy’s respect.

  • Learning the ropes. It’s Jackie’s first managerial role and she’s learning how to step back from doing the role to managing someone doing the role. It’s difficult and the natural tendency is to go back to what you know. She’s trying not to tell Andy how to do the job but if she can see a better way to do it, she thinks it is right to say so to him – that is what is best for the team.

  • Making her mark. Jackie wants to prove she can do the job into which she’s been promoted. To do so she wants to make changes and show she can manage a team. She needs the support of the team so it is frustrating when Andy is proving so difficult when she’d hoped she could rely on him. She feels annoyed and betrayed by someone she had considered a friend.

In summary this is a situation ripe for potential conflict. The needs of both are not being met and already performance is starting to suffer. Ideally Jackie and Andy would address it themselves but this requires having a ‘difficult conversation’ and being open about how they are feeling, recognising their own limitations as well as pointing out where they feel aggrieved by the other. If things escalate, they may need the support of Jackie’s manager and / or HR to intervene, perhaps using a DIY Mediation style approach, to nip potential conflict in the bud.

Prevention is better than cure so what could Andy and Jackie do to mitigate the risk of the relationship heading in the wrong direction? Here are a few tips for anyone finding themselves in this kind of scenario:

  • Talk about it up front. Have an open conversation with each other about what you both hope for and any concerns you might have. Agree how you want each other to raise any issues that may come up.

  • Maintain communication. Keep the dialogue open and seek feedback from each other. Listen to what the other person has to say and seek solutions that work for both of you.

  • Don’t make assumptions. We naturally try to interpret others’ behaviour, but doing so can lead to incorrect assumptions. Try to avoid assumptions and instead challenge your thinking and try to see things from the other person’s perspective.

  • Be patient. Give yourself and the other person time to adjust. Respect the other person and recognise that they are likely to be finding it difficult as well. Feeling uncomfortable is natural but normally things settle down.

  • Seek assistance earlier rather than later. Despite your best efforts things can go wrong. There could be external influences which impact negatively on the relationship. Don’t see it as failure to seek assistance from line management and HR. It is far better to get help early avoiding possible serious damage by allowing the conflict to escalate. These relationship issues are ideally suited to a mediation style approach and the earlier the intervention, the higher the chance of success.

When Jackie moves from being Andy’s peer to being his boss, conflict is not inevitable, BUT all the ingredients are present for conflict. Managers and HR would do well to recognise this and encourage those involved to follow the tips above. Otherwise, what could have been a strong and productive relationship ends up with Jackie putting Andy through performance management or Andy handing in his notice.


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