Managing People

Like a Boss: “How Do I Manage a Team that Sees Me as a Coworker?”

October 30, 2019
March 8, 2024
Jennifer Romolini
Lattice Team

Welcome to Lattice’s advice column for new managers, “Like a Boss.” I’m your host, Jennifer Romolini. I’m an editor, an author (of the career guide “Weird In a World That’s Not”), and, yes, a boss who’s been managing other humans for the past dozen or so years at companies both giant and tiny, at quick and dirty startups and multi-layered corporations, with remote and in-office teams ranging from five to 45. I’m also a speaker who talks about succeeding at work even when you feel like a freak. And, sometimes, I give advice, like right now.  

Dear Boss,

I was recently promoted to be the manager of a team of people I’ve been working with for a while. How do I take over this new role with people who don’t see me as a boss? How can I make them respect me and my vision? So far, I feel like I am just doing more work.


A Nervous (and Kind of Sad?) New Manager

Dear Nervous,

First, let me say that I feel for you. This is a tricky, intense situation — one I know from experience because it is one where I have previously failed hideously.

The first time I was ever an official boss, I was working at a tech company where I’d been initially hired as a style blogger. But in short order, I was promoted to deputy editor and then editor in chief, inheriting a team of people I had not hired, a team who saw me as a peer. I had never done the job of bossing before; I imagined it would be instinctual, that I’d move into the step-up, slightly roomier manager’s cubicle, schedule some meetings, and deal with reasonable people in reasonable ways. In reality, I had little idea what I was in for, and even less idea what to do when it came. This is a common experience for new managers — most of us spend our early careers learning how to become good at a thing (often tangible, measurable work) only to find that “success” and “seniority” means doing less of this tangible, measurable thing we’re good at and more of the nebulous task of guiding other humans to do the thing. Generally, we are promoted into management with little training and more of a push into a room wearing an outfit that feels too big. 

At the tech company, the team I inherited had a number of problems (laziness, lack of accountability, not being very good at what they did). I’d known these problems existed, even when we worked side by side, and they were certainly not getting better. But I was uncomfortable in my new position and too afraid to confront them. Instead of delegating, like you, I took on more. I coddled. I was overly empathetic. Imagining that this would inspire loyalty, I listened to employee gripes, daily, to the point that it took up time when I should have been focusing on my job. I exacerbated performance issues by allowing my team to believe they were doing satisfactory work. When I couldn’t motivate them to complete projects up to standard, I completed them myself. 

Months went by like this. Finally, when my hand was forced, when the complaints started rolling in — from HR, from my boss — I scheduled a performance meeting with the worst of the bunch. But it was too late; I’d let it go on too long. The employee thought the world was flat, and I was telling her it was round. Her response to my meek performance feedback was to yell, “I am not a derelict! You are TREATING ME LIKE A DERELICT. I WILL NOT BE TREATED LIKE A DERELICT.” And then to storm out of the room we were sitting in, march to her cube, and begin dramatically packing her things — all of which culminated in a scene that ultimately involved security. Though her behavior in that moment was inappropriate, the fallout fell on me. I knew I was the one who’d failed.

Here’s the thing: Though there are countless books, essays, TED talks, flow charts, memos written in unicorn tears about what it takes to be a good leader, what I’ve learned in the years since the derelict episode, as I’ve moved into higher positions and successfully managed dozens of employees is that being a great manager is not as complex as we think. There’s really just one rule you have to follow: In order to be an effective boss of this new team you’re managing, you need to be brave.

Most all of our worst boss decisions come from some type of cowardice, from the fear of being disliked or worrying about hurting someone’s feelings. Or sometimes they come from the opposite — the cowardice of insecurity, of abusing our positions of power in twisted ways because we’re not self-aware or confident enough to actually be comfortable within them.

Most every bad boss is a coward because every good boss decision requires courage. Being a good boss means being brave enough to sit in discomfort, to be on display and say the hard things that no one else wants to say, to be the office buzzkill when you have to be, to do scary grown-up things that suck. 

In order to get this team to respect you (and to stop doing all of their work, by God, you poor human!) here are four rules to remember:

1.Good leadership takes emotional bravery and presence.

I’m sincerely sorry that no one tells us this, because if they did, maybe fewer people would aspire to “upper management” and therefore fewer people would become hideous bosses. But this boss thing? It requires focus and presence and tons of emotional bravery.  It takes bravery to sit across from another human and give them your time and your feedback (in weekly 1:1s which you can —and should!— schedule in Lattice’s meeting tool), to zero in on their strengths, to identify and help them work on their weaknesses, to set goals (there is also a Lattice tool for this, friends) and consistently hold them accountable without blowing up in their faces. Given a choice, few people would choose to do this, almost everyone would rather be looking at fat cats on Tik Tok than giving a thoughtful performance review

2. Good managers are decisive.

It takes bravery to be decisive, to trust yourself, to set a clear path for a team with your best instincts and intentions. Passive-aggression is for wimps. You can’t give employees roundabout instruction or say the opposite of what you actually want because it sounds nicer. You can’t expect people to read your mind and then get mad when they don’t perform. Give clear, direct instruction and feedback whenever you can, as often as you can. When there are larger crises, don’t let an issue fester and cause a viral-fear outbreak among your staff; make a decision, quickly sort out how to communicate that decision, and then get that message out. When there are difficult calls to make, make them. It takes bravery to fire people when they need to be fired, to rip off the Band-aid, to not allow a situation to spiral out of control until, ahem, you’re forced to call security.

3. Good managers practice compassionate confrontation.

What should you do when things are going south? Talk about it! Not in a terrifying way, not in a way that personalizes the problem, or that shames the employee. You are allowed to be in a position of authority without behaving like a monster. Don’t let problems worsen in the hopes that they’ll go away. 

In your case of being a new manager to a group of former co-workers, address what is happening head-on and bring the employee into discovering a solution, “I know that this must be weird, that a month ago I was your coworker and now I’m your boss and I want to find a way to respectfully do my job that doesn’t make you uncomfortable. How do you think that could work best?”

4.Good managers model appropriate behavior.

Be a model of strength your employees can look up to. Advocate for them, always. Don’t back down from tough administrative battles, even if they are annoying. Fight for your staff’s earned raises and their deserved promotions, push back against thoughtless executives who try to save a buck at the expense of employee well-being, who put careless policies into place, who try to screw over junior employees who don’t know any better.  Don’t stand by in the face of discrimination or weirdness of any kind. When you see something, say something. 

Even when you don’t feel like it, even when it seems so easy to just half-ass it, show up on time; don’t laze about. Take accountability when you messed it all up, apologize when necessary. Remember: despite popular opinion, kindness, compassion, and appropriate apologies are the opposite of weakness; they’re strengths.

Be brave. Your staff will respect you for it. And the trick to any of this going well, more than being feared or even loved, is to be respected.

Do you have a question or situation you'd like to pose to Like a Boss? Give us a shout on Twitter at @latticehq.