You Can't Be the Boss And a Buddy Too

WHEN Sarah Liput was promoted a year and a half ago from a staffing supervisor to a manager at CBS Personnel, her co-workers were very excited at the prospect that she would be their new boss.

Ms. Liput and the other 15 employees she would be managing had worked together for more than a year at the staffing-service firm's branch office in Dayton, Ohio. They often all went out after work two or even three times a week to socialize.

But being boss to your former co-workers isn't easy, as Ms. Liput, a Generation Xer found out. What was most difficult, she says, was breaking the ties with her former office mates. "And that," she adds, "causes a lot of hardships in the office."

"After a month, when they knew that this was serious business, and I wasn't able to go out ... and socialize with them, that's when it started to become difficult," Liput contends. People began acting more apprehensive toward her, she says, or they would even clam up when she was around.

Managing workers who were once your peers - regardless of your age - is something people often face as they climb the corporate ladder. Many companies try to avoid the move, well aware of the difficulties it sometimes creates for both manager and worker. But the scenario is becoming more common, some say, as the corporate structure begins to flatten out and more workers are promoted based on their abilities rather than seniority.

While every situation is different, the most important point to remember, career counselors say, is that authority affects relationships. One of the key commandments: You can't be both boss and buddy. "Don't go in and say, 'Just because I'm the boss, nothing will change,' because that's not true," says Val Arnold, a senior vice president with Personnel Decisions International, a Minneapolis-based human-resources consulting firm.

As soon as the official word is out that you're the new boss, Mr. Arnold and others recommend that you meet both as a department and individually with each worker. Discuss how you see your new role and what you expect of yourself and the people you will now be managing. It's very important, Arnold says, to be "predictable" and to keep the lines of communication open.

"The first month is the hardest," Liput contends, "because ... people don't take you seriously." At first, when she would ask someone to finish a task or follow up on a project, some employees would procrastinate or not even do the job.

It took about a month for the tensions to culminate, Liput says, before she realized that she needed to do something. So she got everyone together for a meeting.

"After talking with them, and letting them know what our focus is and that we have to work together, that's when things started becoming smoother," she says. She also started to go out occasionally with the gang - they just tried not to talk about work.

How you assert your authority also will determine success. While managers may not want to be seen as "the boss" overnight, those who have survived this tricky transition say it's imperative for your workers to know that you are calling the shots.

"The biggest thing you have to guard against is 'hiding the ball' - pretending that the authority situation has not changed," says Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Inc. in New Haven, Conn., a research firm that focuses on Generation X.

"Whenever relationships are not clearly defined, there's a strong potential for misunderstandings," adds career counselor Terry Devlin, with Career Management International in Houston.

Liput says she side-stepped the dictatorial approach and tried to create a team environment, which is what her company encourages. "I've always been a hands-on manager. I'm very team oriented," she says. "If you're forceful, people are going to get negative; they're not going to be team players."

"I went in and got a feel for what [my workers] were doing and gradually suggested ideas to them," she says.

She must have done something right, because last year Liput's company named her "Manager of the Year."

Don't take it personally if some people react negatively to your new change in status. It is tempting "to behave in such a way as to undermine your own authority with people like that," Mr. Tulgan says. "You might say, 'It should have been you,' or, 'You would have been just as good.' And that's the thing to avoid most of all."

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