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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

How to Succeed When You're Taking Over "Someone Else's" Role

You’ve just landed a new job or a promotion. Score! You eagerly accept, ready to tackle your new responsibilities—only to find that while you (and your manager) are thrilled about your arrival, your co-workers are less than enthusiastic.

Turns out, they liked working with your predecessor just fine. They don’t want you—they want their old colleague back. Maybe they feel like you squeezed out the last person in your role, or maybe they just generally resent that their friend is gone and wouldn’t like any replacement. But either way, it seems that your golden job opportunity might be at risk of becoming tarnished by office politics. And if you don’t find a solution, you may end up hating your job—or even worse, failing at it.

So how do you navigate these less-than-hospitable (read: hostile) work relationships? I’ve been in two situations where my new colleagues were not happy with my arrival and not afraid to say it! And both times, it made me even more anxious about my new role, but also more determined to succeed. Here are a few ways to approach the situation and win over your new co-workers.

Empathize With Your Co-workers

Now, I know you’re thinking, “They’re being mean to me for no reason, and you want me to sympathize with them?” Well, yes, I do. While it is unfair that your co-workers are taking their frustrations out on you, realize that they’re upset, that they may be feeling powerless, and that they want to hold someone responsible. And they’re not going to direct their ire at management for fear it will earn them a pink slip and a spot on the unemployment line. That makes you the easy target.

So cut your co-workers a little slack. Of course, this doesn’t mean bending over backward to get them to like you—you have a job to do, after all—but understanding where they’re coming from is a good first step.

Keep Your Ear to the Ground

If you’re new to the team or company, you’ll want to spend time really figuring out the office dynamics and understanding what happened with your predecessor. Of course, this can be a little tricky, since you have to complete this reconnaissance work without engaging in gossip. It’s like a U.N. fact-finding mission to uncover two things:

  • Your predecessor’s performance: What did she do well (so you can replicate it) and not so well (so you can avoid it)?
  • The extent that co-workers affect your work: Who do you need to make happy to make your job easier? Which co-workers can make or break your success?
  • Ask questions and watch your manager and co-workers closely to understand how to be successful. For example, by asking things like, “What hasn’t worked before, and how do you suggest that we address it going forward?” you might find that your manager was unhappy with your predecessor’s infrequent communication.

    But recognize that much of what you need to know will not come from formal communications—it will come from comments that you overhear in passing and watching how others interact. For example, from a co-worker’s off-the-cuff remark, you may discover an unwritten office rule to never challenge management decisions in public, something for which your predecessor was notorious. Knowing this can help you build an effective relationship with your manager by using more subtle ways to deliver feedback and ideas.

    Over-Communicate With the Team

    When people are mean to us, we generally run in the opposite direction. We hunker down and try to work harder, hoping to earn the respect of our colleagues before coming back out of our shell.

    In this case, though, keeping to yourself can make the situation worse—hey, they were friends with the last guy, remember? So go out of your way to communicate consistently with your new co-workers. Let them know what you are working on, share your progress, and when appropriate, ask for their help. This will go a long way in building relationships with your new co-workers.

    If they don’t immediately reciprocate, don’t let that deter you or cause you be defensive. Keep your approach casual and breezy. At least early on, pretend like you don’t even notice their chilly treatment—it won’t serve you to challenge it.

    Include Your Predecessor (in Spirit)

    When it’s appropriate, don’t be afraid to talk about your predecessor and what he or she did well. For example, “I’ve been working on the quarterly update. Tim did an excellent job on reporting, so I have record of what’s been done in the past, but I do have a question about one section. Could you help?” While (let’s be real), your outreach may be met with snarky comments and eye rolls, it also may help your co-workers feel like you’re on their team.

    And either way, through these interactions, you’ll be able to separate the ringleaders of the “We hate the new girl” campaign from those that are open to the possibility that you aren’t really that bad.

    Proceed With Caution

    As the dust begins to settle on the storm that your arrival brought, you’ll hopefully begin to make some friends. Some of your colleagues might bring you into their circle by inviting you to lunch or stopping by your desk to chat. You may even start to feel like you’re part of the office in-crowd.

    That’s great—but do not use this as an opportunity to let your guard down. No matter what, avoid gossiping with your co-workers or with your manager, particularly when it comes to your predecessor. Yes, it can be really hard to remove yourself from “water cooler” conversation, but if you don’t, you could risk your reputation and credibility. Not to mention all the relationship-building you’ve done so far!

    Unfortunately, a hostile environment or unpleasant co-workers can derail your success in a new job. So, though they’re the ones being unprofessional, it’s in your best interest to take control of the situation. Try not to take their behavior personally and expect that your interactions will improve over time. And in the meantime, succeed in your new role by learning as much as you can about the office culture and proactively communicating, sharing information, and building relationships with your colleagues.

    Photo of woman working courtesy of Shutterstock.

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