When a Millennial Moves from Buddy to Boss

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020


Managing Your Peers: From Buddy to BossOne day, they are your colleagues and buddies—the people you go to happy hour with, take coffee breaks with, and the people you may even complain about your boss with. Then, the next day, you’re their boss. Sticky. All of a sudden, you find yourself wondering what you should and shouldn’t say to your former colleagues—poking fun at their boss, complaining about the finance departmen, and chatting about clients over drinks no longer seem appropriate.


One of the biggest obstacles that Millennials say they face is managing their peers. How do you go from friend to manager? How do you draw boundaries or command respect? This can be a touchy situation. Your co-workers and pals might be happy for you, but there also may be some questions there. Why did he get the promotion and not me? To make the transition from peer to manager, there are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Go all in. You are the manager. Just because you were given the promotion or the title change, doesn’t mean you automatically are seen as the leader. The first period of your transition is critical as your friends question your role and maybe even wonder how much they will be able to get away with. Assume your role with a humble confidence—an openness to ideas with a strong self-assurance in your leadership abilities.

2. Determine your boundaries. Right from the start, you must set clear expectations and boundaries when managing your peers. Millennial managers have a tendency to treat their team like equals and friends, and Millennial direct reports are very open to this idea. It’s your job to make clear what is acceptable and what is not.

One Millennial manager at a real estate firm recalled this story of a poor-performing Millennial intern—Ivan—who did not have a clue about boundaries. One fateful morning, Ivan, the intern, texted his manager telling her that he would not be able to come into work…because he was still hungover. The Millennial manager was infuriated. First, Ivan hid behind technology and texted her instead of calling—at a time when he already should have been at work no less. Second, Ivan had the audacity to tell his manager that he was hungover. The Millennial manager alerted human resources about the reason Ivan, the intern, was not showing up for work and said that his pay should be docked—copying Ivan. Although his manager was about his age, Ivan did not see the boundaries—he crossed the line. Needless to say, Ivan did not receive an offer for a full-time position.

Drawing the boundaries and setting expectations need to fall in the manager’s court. For example, maybe as peers, everyone would go out for happy hours together, but now as manager, you don’t go or you only stay for a drink or two. It’s not that you can’t have fun as a manager, but what happens when your direct reports start talking negatively about the vice president on the second drink? Do you say something or do you let it go? Either way, you’re not in a spot to do much good for yourself. If you don’t say anything, your inaction is condoning their behavior. If you do say something, you’re the snooty manager who can’t relax. You lose either way, and it’s best not to put yourself in that situation.

3. Find the balance between power-hungry authoritarian and friendship-preserving pushover. Admittedly, Millennials who are now managing their former peers are in a tough spot, and there are opposite ends of the spectrum that managers tend to jump toward. Your goal is to land somewhere in between. On one hand, some newly promoted Millennials are excited to be in charge! To show their peers that they are now the leader, they take a more aggressive and commanding management style. They assert their power and give out orders to make it clear that they are no longer a peer—they are the BOSS. This usually breeds contempt and frustration amongst team members. Who does this guy think he is? He was doing the same thing I was doing yesterday, and now, all of a sudden he has all the answers?

On the other hand, some managers jump to the other end of the spectrum not wanting to come off too bossy or arrogant. They are so concerned about hurting feelings or preserving friendships that they never really take on a management role at all. They get lost in the collaboration and friendship zone, and don’t take on leadership responsibilities. Phillip Schreiber of the Holland & Knight law firm notes that Millennial managers need to be wary of favoritism. This is not to scare you, but something you should be aware of. Schreiber says, “If the perception is that you are showing favoritism, you are at risk for discrimination claims, and you also can run into employee relations problems. It’s really about the perception a manager creates when working with his or her team.”

Your goal is to find a comfortable spot in the middle of power-hungry and pushover. This is where you will be most effective. Rocci Primavera, Director of Finance Development Programs, Abbott Laboratories, speaks to this idea of walking the fine line, “Teach with an informal, highly collaborative, and give-and-take style. Don’t unconsciously act superior in any way—perhaps trying to prove that you deserve your manager role.” Remember, you can be assertive AND nice. You can be friendly without being a friend.

4. Chat it out. If there are some people who are really struggling with your situation, you need to have a conversation. Maybe they are bitter or resentful or maybe they just miss your friendship. Talk about it. Set aside time for a one-on-one to hear what’s going on. This is when you want to do less talking and more listening. Ask a lot of probing questions, and it’s best to address the proverbial elephant in the room.

Here are some ideas on how to start:

I can imagine it may seem a little different since I’ve become manager. I’ve noticed you seem a little distant, so I wanted to see what was going on.

Ever since I took on this new role, I feel as though you’ve been really short with me and wanted to see what was up.

Obviously, things have changed a little bit since I’ve become manager, and I wanted to hear your thoughts and see how we could best work together.

Try to empathize. Even if your colleague knows you are the better person for the job, he may still be discouraged that he didn’t get a promotion. Show that you’re on his side and that you want him to be successful so that he too can move up and take on more responsibilities.

5. Find a mentor. Is there a manager inside or outside of your organization whom you respect and admire? Use her as an advisor or mentor. You undoubtedly will have sticky situations that arise. In the past, you likely chatted through workplace sticky situations with your former peers that you now manage. Having a mentor gives you a great third-party, objective view of the situation, and you can play off her years of experience. She likely has faced very similar challenges and opportunities. It’s nice to have a sounding board.

© 2013 Brad Karsh and Courtney Templin. Excerpted from Manager 3.0: A Millennial’s Guide to Rewriting the Rules of Management, by Brad Karsh and Courtney Templin. Used with permission of the publisher, AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

You’ll find more advice for new managers at these AMA seminars:

Making the Transition to Management

Management Skills for New Managers