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Just promoted to office manager? Follow these 9 critical rules to avoid problems managing former friends and colleagues

Getting promoted to office manager can be a mixed blessing. As a former staffer, the new manager comes into the job knowing the good performers, the bad performers, the shortcuts, the troublemakers – and a few secrets.

But the former peers also know their new boss, including strengths, weaknesses, and what buttons to push, says Joan Lloyd, a Milwaukee, WI, management and leadership development consultant.

Along with that, they are wondering how their relationship with their former peer will change. And someone who vied for the promotion could be poised to sabotage the new manager.

Things are different now, Lloyd says. To be successful in the job, the staffer-turned-manager has to carve out an entirely new position in the office.

1. Get a proper introduction

The first hurdle is to get into the position with the acceptance of the other staff, and to achieve that, Lloyd’s advice is to ask the senior physician for a formal introduction.

Without an introduction, staff only see that yesterday’s friend “shows up today as the new boss,” and nobody knows for sure if the new boss really is the boss.

Explain to the physician that the other staff need a clarification that the change has been made. All that needs to be said is “Former Staffer A is now your manager. We have asked A to meet our expectations as manager, and you in turn will now need to meet A’s expectations.”

Follow that with a self-introduction that emphasizes that the new manager is the leader of a team, for example, “I’m very excited to be leading this wonderful team. But I cannot lead this office by myself. I know you all have great ideas, so I want to meet with you on a regular basis to discuss them.”

2. What to say to whom

The next step is to follow through with the promise.

Meet with everybody individually to discuss each person’s career and find out how people can become more effective in their jobs. Ask questions such as What do you like about your job? What would make your job easier? What can I do to help you with your job? What are your career interests?

Don’t get into past performance. The purpose right now is to get “an informal agreement” from each staffer to work with the new manager.

The actual conversation will depend on the prior relationship with the staffer, Lloyd says.

If the relationship has been close, it’s going to be necessary to “draw a line in the sand.” A good way to approach that is with “it’s going to be a little awkward, because I won’t be able to go out with you during lunch or after work now. If I do, the others will see any promotion or raise you get as favoritism, and that’s not fair to you.”

Or, if the staffer is somebody who wanted the promotion and didn’t get it, recognize the situation with “I know you wanted this position, and I’m sure you are disappointed. But I will do everything I can to help you get another promotion. It might not be for this job, but it will be for other jobs. I want to help you develop in your role and then recommend you for a promotion when the time comes.”

If that’s not well received and the staffer later tries to undermine the new manager’s efforts, it’s time for discipline. But take a kind approach: “I have noticed that you have been slow to fulfill the responsibilities I have delegated to you. I know you wanted this position and were disappointed not to get it, and I’m hoping you can shake this attitude. The behavior is not helping you. In fact, if it continues, we will be having a much different conversation later. Please don’t make me have to do that.”

3. Get on the management team

In a large practice where there are other managers, the new manager also needs to establish a position on the management team by meeting with the other managers and asking questions such as How can my staff work with your department better? How can we produce better work for you? Where do you want us to improve?

The new manager is now part of that group, and it’s essential to establish a working relationship with all its members.

4. Don’t be a bully; don’t be a wimp

How much authority should the new boss exercise?

Not a lot, Lloyd says. It’s not uncommon for a newcomer to try to assert authority by coming down hard on everybody right off the bat. But far from strengthening the position, it breeds resistance and resentment.

Neither is it productive to go the other way and be soft.

Equally as bad is to be apologetic about giving directives as in “um, could you please do this for me?” Nobody is going to take that seriously.

Don’t get apologetic either about getting the promotion with comments such as “I really didn’t want this job.”

Apologies won’t offset harsh feelings any staffer has about the change. They will only weaken the new boss’s strength as a manager.

5. No changes in the first six months

Along with the authority question is the question of when to introduce changes.

When people move from staffer to boss, “they often come in bursting with all the ideas they had when they were employees,” Lloyd says. They’ve said often “if I were the boss, I’d do things differently!” And now they want to do all those different things.

Slow down. People resist change. The best approach is to be just an observer for the first six months. Use the time to find out what everybody wants and also to get opinions about any potential changes. After that, introduce each change slowly.

With a slow schedule, she says, people will be amenable to the changes.

That doesn’t apply to changes the doctors ask for, however. If they want to see something done immediately, do it immediately. But if it’s a change staff aren’t going to like, ask one of the physicians to introduce it to staff and also to tell the staff that the doctors have asked the manager to implement the change.

6. A time for praise and recognition

Praise is important during the transition.

Staff are on edge wondering where they stand with the new manager and how their performance is being viewed. What’s needed is praise, and it needs to be given wherever it’s warranted.

The best venue is staff meetings, because there people get both the praise and public acknowledgement.

Take that further and supplement the praise with a statement that the doctors are aware of the staffer’s good work. And try to give tangible proof of that such as a copy of an e-mail sent to the senior physician recognizing the performance.

7. Equal time with everybody

Perhaps the most difficult part of the transition is ending the social interaction with peer friends.

A new boss can’t continue on with the same lunch crowd or spend extra time with old friends as in the past. Do that, and the others will see it as favoritism.

And the real danger comes if a former friend is promoted or given a leadership role. Regardless how well earned the honor is, if the manager has spent more time with that person than with the other staff, everybody will assume favoritism.

That doesn’t mean former friends have to be dropped, Lloyd says. What it means is that there has to be equality. The new boss has to spend equal time with everybody.

Have lunch with the old friends, but have lunch with everybody else just as often; spend time talking with the old friends, but spend the same amount of time talking with the other staff.

8. Get rid of the old jobs

Another difficult part of the transition is letting go of the old responsibilities.

That can be difficult for a new boss, Lloyd says. Anybody gets promoted for being “a star doer,” and it’s not easy to part with the work that generated the promotion in the first place. Consequently, star doers tend to hang on to their old responsibilities, take on the new responsibilities, and get stretched too thin.

She gives the example of a new manager who, among other things, got the promotion because of outstanding collection work. In the new and uncertain job environment, there’s comfort in hanging on to the collections, because it’s something the new boss knows will be done well.

Say goodbye to the old responsibilities, she says, and once they’re gone, don’t try to micromanage them. Let somebody else do those jobs and shine.

9. Don’t badmouth the old boss

To all that Lloyd adds a final caution: don’t criticize the former boss.

The previous manager “may have been a complete idiot,” but don’t say so. The obvious reason is that anybody who liked the former boss will resent the comment and may retaliate by undermining the new boss.

But more than that, a good manager doesn’t get into that type of discussion. Regardless what was said earlier, recognize that the role of manager doesn’t allow it. If somebody opens the subject, respond with “Let’s just focus on the work now. Let’s not go down that path.”

If the response is “well you sure didn’t mind talking about it before,” own up to the mistake: “Yes, I did. And it was inappropriate. And it’s still inappropriate now.”

Far from putting people off, that attitude will earn the new manager respect, she says. The other staff see it as professionalism. They’ll also see it as an indication the new manager won’t gossip about anybody else in the office.


Editor’s picks:

10 essential tips for new managers


How to be a strong manager even when dealing with over-controlling physicians


Eight rules for managing an office, especially a small one


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