How to Act When a Colleague Becomes Your Boss

Anyone who’s ever worked in a corporate job knows that office life provides a seemingly endless array of awkward situations. One of the worst is when the person in the next cube – the one you share a few beers with on Fridays while you complain about work – suddenly becomes your boss. Here’s how to get through it with your sanity, ego, and job intact.


Be gracious

No matter how resentful you may feel inside – especially if you wanted the promotion, too – the only acceptable response is to graciously congratulate your new boss (who’s probably feeling just as awkward as you are). This isn’t the time to make cracks about past comments or behaviour, or to complain that you should have gotten the job instead (even if the two of you would have complained together if someone else had been promoted).

Express your support

Since your new boss is probably expecting some resentment – and maybe even some subtle sabotage – from his former colleagues, let him know that you have his back. A little support can go a long way.

Let your boss set the tone

One dilemma in this situation is deciding how to act – whether to be casual or formal, whether to ignore or emphasize the change in status, etc. Following your boss’s lead is the best way to avoid inadvertently crossing a line.

Don’t let your feelings get hurt

When your former colleague – and friend – is suddenly making assignments, giving you instructions, and offering feedback, it’s easy to get your feelings hurt. But don’t take it personally: That’s what a boss does. Even if he’s told you for years that you’re better at creating spreadsheets, it’s now his job to tell you how spreadsheets need to be done. Don’t force him to choose between offending you and not doing his job.

Clear the air

If you and your former colleague were particularly close, engaged in some wild shenanigans, or spent a lot of time bad-mouthing the old boss or the company, he’s probably feeling pretty awkward. It may be good to clear the air with a “That was then; this is now,” conversation to let him know you’re ready to start over and move on with the new relationship.

Don’t guilt trip him

Sure, if the boss has always been part of the crew that went out for beers after work on Friday, it may feel weird if that changes in the course of one week. Your new boss probably just feels like he needs to put a little distance between himself and the team until he gets settled into the new position. Once he’s gained a little confidence in the role, he may join you for drinks again. If he doesn’t, though – still no guilt trip.

Stay away from gripe sessions

No matter who gets promoted, there are going to be people who aren’t happy about it and who publicly gripe about what a bad choice it was. Don’t get caught up in that. If you can’t quite bring yourself to sing your new boss’s praises, at least say something like, “Why don’t we give him a chance before we decide he’s going to be terrible?”

Let’s face it – there’s no way having a colleague become your boss won’t be awkward for both of you. But if you act gracious and professional, you’ll lay the groundwork for a successful working relationship.


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