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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Behave Like a Mature, Professional Adult When Your Co-worker Becomes Your Boss

We’d sat next to each other in the same row of cubicles for a year. We regularly talked about our weekend plans, helped each other out with tough assignments, and vented to each other about office drama. She was a great co-worker, and we worked together flawlessly.

Then, one day, everything changed—she become my manager.

In a swift department shift, she was promoted, and I become one of her direct reports.

If you’re ever in the same situation, it can be hard to fight through the range of emotions you’re feeling—everything from being proud of your co-worker to wanting to rip that lofty title right out of her hands. But to make the move successful for everyone involved, you need to do these key things.

Quell the Jealousy

I know what you’re thinking: It’s not fair that your co-worker got the promotion, you deserve to be the manager, he or she gets an office while you’re stuck in a tiny cube, and he or she probably got a giant raise.

I know, because I thought those things, too.

It’s going to be hard to face your co-worker’s new managerial position without at least a twinge of jealousy. No matter how happy you are for him or her or how great the two of you get along, a little envy is inescapable.

But get those thoughts out of the way now, because at the end of the day, this is the situation you’re in, and jealousy won’t change it. With the right attitude, you can use that jealousy in a healthy way to benefit your career—but don’t let it get in the way of your success in your company and under your new manager.

Be a Little Selfish

As I’ve mentioned, in this new situation, your thinking is probably already on the selfish side. Rather than thinking about how wonderful it is that your friend got a promotion, for example, you’re probably feeling sorry for yourself and your inhibited work friendship.

Well, good news: I’m here to tell you to continue on that self-centered road and start to consider how your co-worker’s promotion can benefit you.

Remember all those things you and your co-worker vented to each other about when you were cubemates? Maybe you thought a department policy was inefficient or that employees should have more flexibility to work from home. Guess what? Now that your co-worker is in a position of power, he or she may actually be able to make those changes happen.

I remember complaining to my co-worker that I’d had almost no communication with Rebecca, our chief marketing officer. When that co-worker became my manager, the first thing she said was, “I have a one-on-one meeting with Rebecca today; do you want me to get you some time on her calendar?” And voilà—I finally had a direct line of communication to the CMO.

Remember: Your co-worker has literally been in your position before—she understands what you want and is now in a position to make that happen. Take advantage of it!

Don’t Be So Quick to Judge

When my co-worker became my boss, I immediately started looking at everything she did through a tainted lens. She wanted to review my draft before I continued with a project? Obviously, she was a micromanager. She started assigning me projects and reminding me of deadlines? Clearly, she was on an out-of-control power trip.

In the heat of the moment, it can be easy to perceive certain events or behaviors in a skewed way. But let’s be realistic: As a manager, doling out assignments and reviewing her employees’ work is part of her job. All she’s doing is stepping up to her role and doing what’s expected of her—and you can’t blame her for that.

Instead of intentionally looking for things to blame her for, give her the benefit of the doubt. Wait to see how things play out.

Accept That Some Things May be Different

Right off the bat, some things may be different about your day-to-day relationship.

For example, my co-worker and I used to vent to each other about Matt, the manager of a department we worked closely with. Whenever one of us had to interact with him, we’d share all the gory details with the other.

But once she become my manager—and a peer of Matt’s—she wasn’t quite as open. Now that she was working with him on a daily basis, she had to maintain a good relationship with him, and she realized she couldn’t be speaking down about him to her team. All of a sudden, our venting sessions changed. I sensed that she took her managerial role very seriously, and didn’t want to risk her professionalism by gossiping.

That particular element of our relationship simply had to change—but for the sake of my co-worker’s career (and mine), it was probably for the best.

…But Some Things Don’t Have to Change

On the other hand, it’s important to realize that not everything about your relationship has to change.

Maybe, as co-workers, you used to go to lunch once a month. That’s something that doesn’t necessarily have to stop, as long as your co-worker-turned-manager knows how to navigate the sometimes-tricky waters of being friends with employees without playing favorites (and if he or she doesn’t, here are some tips).

Yes, you need to be respectful of your co-worker’s new role—but as long as you tread carefully, you don’t have to start your professional relationship from scratch.

Embrace That You’re a Team

It’s understandably tough to see the working relationship between you and your co-worker change.

But as career coach Lea McLeod often says, it’s your job to make your manager more successful. And that doesn’t change just because your boss is your former co-worker.

It does, however, make that goal a little easier. So often, employees struggle with figuring out how to work effectively with their managers—how to communicate successfully, disagree respectfully, and ask for help when they’re confused. Well, after working with this person for so long, you should have those things down to a science. And that will make your job much easier.

Yes, reporting to a co-worker may feel awkward at first, but when you handle it in a professional, respectful manner, everyone will win.

Photo of goldfish jumping courtesy of Shutterstock.