12 Smart Tips for Handling the Awkward Transition from Co-worker to Supervisor

Change management is a concept that should probably be the title of a student affairs textbook if it isn’t already (especially in the days of COVID-19). 

Change comes in many forms when working in higher education: Change in organizational structures, change in office responsibilities, and change in the student leaders we work with — just to name a few. One change that we ultimately bear the greatest responsibility for managing occurs when we transition into a supervisory role over our former coworkers and peers.

Most of us have received specialized training in order to do the work we do, but becoming a supervisor is not something you’ve probably had lessons on. Fortunately, there are plenty of simple things to do, some things to avoid, and a few considerations that will help you make this transition like a pro

12 Tips

1. Be clear about the transition.

Sometimes, communicating the news of your promotion to others will be your first task in your new role.

So, communicate to your colleagues as soon as possible that your role and responsibilities will be changing. Depending on your pre-existing relationships, or the context of your work, this may come in the form of one-on-one chats, an announcement during a staff meeting, or even a well-crafted email for your geographically dispersed colleagues. 

2. Introduce yourself.

gif of Austin Powers saying 'allow myself to introduce myself'

Tell your team about yourself and ask them to do the same. This will help to exemplify that a change has occurred and that you are beginning the journey of getting to know each other in a new context. Consider sharing some things about your background they don’t know, passion projects you’ve been working on, or how you hope to impact the team in your new role.

3. Host one-on-one meetings.

I recommend scheduling about an hour with each member of your team within the first week of your new role. If you have a large team, communicate that the one-on-ones will be scheduled with everyone as soon as calendars allow. This will ensure that your team can see the value you are already placing on creating a dialogue. This will also allow each individual to communicate if they have concerns or questions about the new professional dynamic. 

Ask questions like, “What initial expectations do you have from me in my new role?” or, “What type of leadership are you hoping I can provide for you and our team?”  This meeting is also a time you can set clear expectations and goals.  This may eliminate some of the unknowns for your employees and help everyone begin adjusting to your new role.

4. Request honest feedback.

Just because your staff used to be open and honest with you as a coworker, that doesn’t mean they will still feel as comfortable being outspoken now that you’re their supervisor.

So, set the tone that everyone should feel safe and empowered to provide feedback to each other. Don’t forget to mention the best ways they can provide you with critical feedback or communicate their needs to you.  Depending on your office culture and size, this may mean creating a virtual or physical comment box to allow for anonymity. It may also mean being honest about personal areas of growth you plan to focus on.

Keep in mind that this is only step one in garnering honest feedback. In order to maintain that expectation, you also need to commit to accepting constructive criticism and addressing the comments in a meaningful way. 

5. Take a step back from personal friendships with your former coworkers.

Start passing on most happy hour invites and don’t be surprised if you don’t get invited to an event happening in someone’s personal life. If you’re having a tough time deciding if you should join your staff for an activity, try to identify if the activity will serve as an opportunity for team building or if it is meant primarily for socializing. If it’s the latter, it’s probably a good idea to politely decline.

This can be one of the more challenging parts of an in-office promotion, but it’s important to remember that you are now their supervisor. You don’t want to become completely disconnected, but setting boundaries for your socialization is considered a necessary part of being an effective leader.

6. Anticipate the growing pains.

gif of two people saying 'we'll figure it out'

Be honest with your team about the fact that this transition will likely take some trial and error to get right. Don’t feel the need to pretend like everything you try will result in bonafide success. Acknowledge when things don’t go according to plan or didn’t turn out the way you expected. Get comfortable saying, “I don’t know but I’ll find out.”

This gives your team the grace to know that there will be a learning curve in navigating these new dynamics while allowing yourself space to make mistakes, ask questions, and grow.

7. Spend more time coaching.

As a peer, it’s natural to just show someone how to do something new or make a recommendation on what would be best. But as a supervisor, you need to remember that you’re responsible for helping your employees grow and develop.

Try asking your employees questions like, “What do you think would help solve this problem?” or “Have you experienced anything similar in the past? How did you navigate it then?” There are lots of great books that can get you started. Your campus may even have a department that focuses on student success coaching; don’t be afraid to ask for some tips that are applicable to professional staff!

8. Be patient.

Remember that your new role means that your group dynamics are rolling back to the forming stage. Tuckman’s Model of Group Development can serve as a reminder to anticipate that your team will go through it’s storming stage again. But this time, it’s your responsibility to support your team in navigating through each stage. This helpful article even lays out the type of leader you should aim to be during each stage. 

9. Schedule a three-month check-in with each member of your team.

Let them know that even though you’re asking about their needs now, you understand that things may change later on as everyone settles into the new office dynamics. By scheduling this check-in in advance, you are letting your staff know that everyone reserves the right to communicate a change in needs, expectations, or unexpected challenges (including yourself!).

This check-in should be in addition to your standard one-on-one meetings. So, the focus is not on the employee’s tasks or current projects; rather, it’s about how your team and the employees feel three months into the transition. Consider reflecting back on the questions you asked during your first one-on-one meeting and modifying as needed. 

10. Address conflict in a timely manner.

gif of Tahani from The Good Place saying 'let's chat shall we?'

Whether it’s conflict arising because of your new role or an unrelated conflict between some of your employees, timeliness is key. Be candid about your observations, ask for the input of everyone involved, and develop a tangible plan for moving forward. If the conflict is too difficult for you to manage personally, consider pulling in your campus ombudsperson or employee relations expert.  

11. Devote time to your other relationships.

With an in-office promotion currently monopolizing your time and focus, it can be easy to forget that your other professional relationships have also shifted. You also need to direct some energy toward navigating your campus partnerships from your new role and adjusting to new expectations or communication styles from your supervisor.

Set up meetings with colleagues across campus and ask about how you can facilitate effective collaboration. Consider ways you can manage up by asking your supervisor questions that are similar to those that you’ve already asked your new supervisees.   

12. Be kind to yourself.

Don’t forget about self-care. It can be easy to fall into a pattern of running yourself ragged when filling a new role. This may be because you are trying to prove you’re still a team player or because you’re feeling a bit of imposter syndrome sinking in.

Remind yourself that you were chosen for this job, you have the appropriate skills (or you know you can learn them), and that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Give yourself the same grace you’re giving the rest of your team as everyone works to adjust. 

gif of a young girl saying 'you've got to believe in yourself'

While this transition may feel like a daunting task, it can be navigated effectively. Don’t be afraid to ask questions (to your staff, to your supervisor, or to Google), communicate as much as is possible, and remember to enjoy the new opportunity. You’ve earned it. 

How have you successfully navigated a transition to a supervisory role? We’d love to hear your stories! Connect with us @HelloPresence.

Megan Deremiah

About the author: Megan Deremiah is the Assistant Director of a university victim advocacy office. She is a fierce advocate for survivors of violence, passionate about LGBTQ+ inclusion, and an avid explorer of local breweries. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

Check I'm Here is now Presence. Learn more about this change in our blog post here.