The Awkward Thing About Being Promoted That No One Wants to Tell You

Leadership Lesson 2: Negotiating Relationships

… and how to conquer the discomfort.

You finally got the big promotion you have been working toward. Welcome to your spacious new office, your sizable salary increase, and a stack of freshly printed business cards you can send to your parents to show them you have finally made it!

Only one problem: Suddenly everything has gotten a little … strange around the office.

There is an old joke in the consulting world:

Q: What’s the best way to lose your work friends?

A: Get promoted.

Gore Vidal famously nailed the same sentiment when he cheekily said, “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” While Vidal said this partially in jest, the sentiment is not far off the mark.

There will always be friction when you enter a new position, but when you enter the position through an internal promotion, that friction can double. A couple years ago, I witnessed this phenomenon first hand at a mid-sized construction company for whom I was consulting.

A beloved construction worker who had been at the company for nearly a decade had just been promoted to project manager. The problem was that even the most well-liked employee is not immune to jealousy and resentment by former colleagues who have suddenly become direct reports.

Within a couple of weeks, the project manager was faltering, tripping over himself in an effort to not alienate his former colleagues. By continuing to go out for beers with his crew, and kowtowing to their requests on the job site, the new project manager was not able to successfully lead his team, nor fully step into his new role.

Fortunately, I was there to coach the newly minted manager through the tricky transition from colleague to boss. Here are the four steps I recommend in situations like this:

  1. Acknowledge: It is important to acknowledge the discomfort or awkwardness that may arise due to an internal promotion. This acknowledgment should be done unapologetically and should be coupled with the affirmation that a unified team is crucial for success moving forward.
  2. Leverage: Point out that no one knows the team’s skills better than one of their own. This recognition will help your team members feel assured that their skills will be valued moving forward, and help you realize that you are in a unique position to leverage their skills for the good of the organization.
  3. Reset: The most difficult part of a promotion to a leadership position is resetting boundaries with former colleagues and social friends. Maintaining social relationships should be done with your subordinates in a group setting or on a rotating basis so you are not seen as playing favorites. As difficult as this may be, it is often necessary to have private conversations to reset these boundaries. Otherwise, you run the risk of internal dissension that can undermine your team’s efforts.
  4. Run: The quickest way to create a “new normal” in your tenure is simply to focus on running the business and exercise regular and clear authority. Ultimately, people appreciate routine and stability. The sooner a clear routine is established, the sooner productivity returns and negative energy is reduced.

By following these steps, the project manager was able to get things back on track with his team. Though the transition was not easy, the project manager later confided to me that working his way through those tricky first months was one of the most rewarding experiences of his career.

He beat the awkward promotion blues, and so can you.