Showing Them Who's Boss

I was recently promoted to be the head of a division, overseeing some of my former colleagues that I used to socialize with. How can I now establish my authority and signal the changed nature of our relationship?

You need to quickly reset the context of your relationship with your former peers, ideally by meeting with them to discuss the changes and your expectations of them. As part of the carrot approach, you can use your familiarity with them to discuss how you'll support their goals and aspirations, perhaps by using a line like, "Who better than me to be your boss if you perform well?" If appropriate, establish yourself as their champion.


You want them to know that if they do well for you, they'll be rewarded, but you also have to be very clear about where the lines are drawn in your new relationship. So you might not go to the same happy hour where you all used to go and grouse about work; maybe you adapt that to a more work-oriented social event where employee accomplishments are recognized, or perhaps a lunch now and then.

Inevitably, some folks won't be as accepting of the new situation, and for them, you'll have to use the stick by holding them extremely accountable for their work or performance, perhaps with some regular reporting requirements. A change in leadership is one of the best times to reset expectations, and establishing a high bar is also a good way to keep their minds on their tasks and off of you.

One of my clients—a director in a manufacturing company—faced a lot of resistance from one particular ex-colleague when he was promoted above him. My client asked everyone to come in at 8:30 in the morning, and his former pal used to waltz in at 9:00 or 9:15. My client took him aside and took a positive approach first, telling him that he was an important member of the team and that my client needed him to back him up.

But the lateness continued, and my client had to get tough and tell his former pal that his behavior was going to affect his performance review and bonus. The ex-pal gave him the usual "I can't believe you're doing this to me" line and did start showing up on time—but with a bad attitude. Eventually, my client got him transferred to another department, which is something you should always consider doing early on when faced with this type of situation.

If my client had let his former friend's behavior continue, others would have viewed his lenience as weakness or inconsistency. The point is, you can't let your ex-colleagues' assumptions about your past relationship get in the way of you getting your new job done.

Dr. Ron Brown is a leading expert in the fields of leadership development and organizational change. He is the founder and president of Banks Brown, a management consulting firm that specializes in providing skills to optimize the performance of leaders and organizations. He can be reached at or 415-788-5444. Questions for Power Plays can be submitted on this page.