How to Manage Someone Who Used to be Your Manager

It’s possibly one of the most awkward scenarios that you can encounter as a manager – taking over management of someone who used to be your manager. It’s a big role reversal and can create a difficult situation for both you and your new team member. 

It’s actually more common than you’d probably think as well – I’ve seen it a few times over the years and each time, the situation has needed some deliberate management.

Without addressing the situation directly, you’re likely to end up in an awkward relationship with your team member and you’re both unlikely to thrive when working together.

Some managers will simply not address the problem and try to carry on as normal, ignoring the dynamic that obviously exists. There is a chance that this may work out eventually, but it’s not exactly ideal to ignore a problem and simply hope that it figures itself out at some point.

Other managers will do the exact opposite and worry about the problem too much, probably leading to their self-confidence taking a bit of a hit and them not actually managing the person properly.

So, what’s the answer? Let’s go through some actionable steps to manage this awkward situation and ensure that you’re both able to do your best work.

Own and lead the conversation

The first step is to own this awkward dynamic and talk about it with your new team member. The chances are, they’ll be grateful for you bringing this up directly rather than saying nothing at all. 

Try to arrange this conversation as soon as you can once you’re both aware of this situation and ideally, have the conversation face to face within a casual, but private environment. You need to allow space for you both to be open about what’s happening but also don’t want to create the impression that this is a formal meeting that affects their record or performance etc.

If you can’t arrange a face to face meeting, then a video call (cameras on) is the next best alternative. Whatever you do, don’t have this conversation over email or Slack!

When you do speak with them, start by asking them how they feel about the changes (be genuinely curious). Be prepared to be led by their responses and to keep asking questions based on their answers.

Given that this could be an awkward and tricky conversation, it’s worth doing some preparation beforehand and putting together a few questions that you’d like to ask them. Not only will this help with figuring out ways of working, but it throws the attention onto them and gives them space to speak about any concerns they have.

Whilst the questions that you ask will be personal to you and your situation, here are a few that you may consider. You may also find after the first question or two that there doesn’t appear to be a huge problem at all, in which case, you can move towards more forward looking questions instead. 

  • How do you feel about the changes in our working relationship?
  • Do you have any concerns about our ability to work effectively with each other?
  • Are there any questions that you have about how we’ve arrived in this situation? (You may not personally be able to answer these, but it’s good to know).

You’ll see that most of these are open ended questions which are very deliberate. Again, you want to get them to talk as much as possible so that they can air any concerns.

Also, notice that these questions are focused on the current situation and possible concerns about the change in management. It’s not about their personal development at this point, although you can quickly move to that if it transpires that they have no or little concern about what’s happened.

And really do listen and be curious. Don’t just stick to the questions above and go through them like a checklist. Ask follow up questions to clarify or dig deeper into their answers.

Again, be genuinely curious to learn their perspective.

Start to formulate the dynamics of your relationship

No one will be expecting you to magically come up with actions and a plan during this first conversation. But you should at least mention to them some initial thoughts and your own feedback on anything that they say.

The goal is for both of you to leave this first conversation feeling less awkward and more confident about your future relationship.

Part of this is for both of you to feel like you have the starting points for a plan and some ideas on how you can work together as effectively as possible.

When finishing this first conversation, despite it not being a formal meeting as such, mention the actions that you’ll take or ideas that you’ll think about as a next step.

Talk about their personal development as soon as possible (but be careful)

One key part of your role as their manager is to give them a personal development plan. Talking about this early on in your relationship will show that you care about it and want to take it seriously. 

At the same time, it’s important to take into account that they used to be your manager and will have probably had a similar conversation about your own personal development at some point! So make sure that you’ve gotten any awkwardness out of the way first and are as confident as you can be that they are on the same page as you.

Otherwise, their ego may take a bit of a hit due to focusing on an area that was explicitly something that they did with you when they managed you. It may just hit a bit too close to home for some people.

Acknowledge and lean into their experience

If someone used to be your manager, then the chances are that they are fairly experienced in their role. Sure, they may not be the most effective manager if your roles have been reversed! But they probably have a lot of experience in the job role that they have – which holds a lot of value to you as the manager of a team. You want people in your team who are experienced and able to do a good job, so it’s very much in your interests to get the best out of them.

If this is the case for you, then lean into their skills and experience by ensuring that you firstly acknowledge it and talk openly about their strengths. Try to make it clear that you value their skills and experience and want them to play a key role in the success of your team as a result of this.

Depending on their skills, experience and most importantly, attitude, you can consider giving them a key role such as your right hand person (without the formality) and use this to motivate them. 

It’s fairly likely (depending on the circumstances under which your roles reversed) that they may feel a bit deflated and possibly even a bit embarrassed as they head into this new working dynamic. If they have valuable skills to contribute, then you can overcome some of their worries by giving them a key role to play in the team.

But… only do this if their skills and experience genuinely warrant such a role. Don’t give it to them to try and make them feel better about themselves and the situation that they’re now in.

Focus on the bigger picture – it’s not about the two of you

One effective way to push personal issues and awkward dynamics (and even politics) out of any situation is to relentlessly focus on the bigger picture and the objective that you’re working towards.

I wouldn’t advise doing this ahead of the conversation above and getting their perspective on your working relationship. But I would advise that you move towards this focus at some point, particularly if they are getting a bit too hung up on issues and not showing any signs of wanting to move forward.

For example, you probably have success metrics or objectives that you want to meet as a team or as a company. Moving them towards a focus on these and how it’s your joint job to exceed them, can start to shift the narrative away from this situation being all about you or them.

In summary, the key theme flowing through these points is that you need to confront and own the awkwardness. Without this, you’re unlikely to succeed together and are making life a lot harder for each other by not addressing the problem.

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