Dear Crucial Skills,
A colleague of mine started in an entry-level role. For the past two years he has been an acting supervisor in an unfilled position. He applied for the permanent position but did not get the job. He must now return to his entry-level role under my supervision. How can I support him through this transition? What should I do if he continues to act like a supervisor?
Assisting a Colleague
My first question to you is: Are you imagining a problem that doesn’t exist?
Your question might reflect your own lack of leadership confidence rather than your colleague’s self-imposed shame at returning to an entry-level role. Allow me to give an example.
I once served in a leadership position in my church. When I was later released from that position, I was asked to serve in a subordinate role to the new leader. I was happy to do it. But I could tell the new leader was immensely uncomfortable giving me assignments. He would thank me profusely for the smallest gesture of service and seemed nervous when I was around. After a couple of months, I found a private moment and reassured him of both my confidence in him and my commitment to the higher purpose we were both serving. When I told him, “I don’t care where I serve, only that I serve,” he began to relax and load me up with assignments.
So my first suggestion is to be sure you have a problem, before you solve it.
If, however, this person’s past actions or comments lead you to conclude he will feel slighted by the change, here are a few thoughts:
Remember—it’s not about you. It would be easy to see his displays of discomfort or hurt as insubordination rather than shame. They aren’t. They are about him. He has a view of the world that ties his self-worth to his social status. All of us feel that way to some degree, so hopefully you can sympathize with, rather than personalize, the emotions he’s experiencing. If you take them personally, you will unwittingly act in ways that reinforce the problem rather than help resolve it. For example, you may become stern in your interactions with him. You may marginalize him socially. You might distance yourself from him. All of these responses will add to his sense that his worth has declined with his position—while not increasing his feelings of trust and safety with you.
Talk now. If you’ve already seen signs that this will be a tough transition for him, inoculate your relationship from damage by speaking up front. Validate his feelings. Let him know you understand that it might be disappointing to lose some of the enjoyments and challenges he had in his supervisory position. Share your nervousness about the transition. Take responsibility for the fact that this is your nervousness. Don’t blame him. Let him know you appreciate how difficult the change will be and that you worry that supervising a former supervisor might be tough for you. Then ask candidly for his advice in managing it with you. Give concrete examples of situations where it might feel awkward and talk them through with him; for example: giving assignments, giving feedback, and holding him accountable. If you pre-live it with him—making a contract with each other for how you will handle these situation—you will both be more comfortable when the time arrives.
Talk later. Also, agree up front to a check-in. For example, you might say, “How about if we go to lunch in 30 days and discuss how it’s working for both of us?” Setting this check-in time will help you both stay conscious and accountable during the intervening time—and will make it easier to talk about course-corrections without it feeling like you’re calling for a major therapy session.
Engage him without enabling him. Finally, you’ve got a great asset here. You’ve got someone with two years of supervisory experience; take advantage of it! However, not in a condescending way. Don’t do it to try to manipulate him from adjusting to his new position. But do take advantage of his judgment and experience in appropriate ways.
You are wise to be attentive to this crucial moment for him and for you. I hope these ideas help you get to a new “normal” that is enjoyable for you both.