This is a tough test for supervisors.
One familiar topic of conversation for many new supervisors in multi-day leadership workshops is dicey: How do you effectively supervise, coach, and discipline employees who used to be your peers? This discussion often takes place early in these programs, when the instructor is asking the participants to voice their biggest challenges and what they want to get from the training experience.
Giving orders or enforcing policies is never easy on a good day. Hammering out discipline to people with whom you used to drink beer, socialize, meet for camping and river trips, or attend law enforcement training conferences in fun cities like Vegas, is tough to do. You may be able to flip that switch, once you make rank, but they may or may not be able to make the transition in their own minds.
When I made sergeant, I took over a squad I had no previous connection with at all. They weren’t in my Academy class, I hadn’t dated any of the females (always a challenge when on- and off-the-job relationships collide), and I had no knowledge of their strengths or weaknesses as cops, people, or employees.
This lack of back story made it much easier for me to be their new boss. I didn’t know any of them by name, reputation or work habits. On Day One, I met with them all and said a version of, “Nice to meet you. I look forward to working with you all. Here are my expectations going forward…” and then it was off to the street.
Supervising and disciplining your former peers can put them at either end of a spectrum. On the one side, you have your ‘ole buddy, who thinks, “Great! My pal is now in charge! I don’t have to work as hard as before. He/she is gonna cut me some major slack and we can hang out just like the good old days. Life is suddenly good.” On the other side, you may have an employee who never was your friend, who thinks, “Great! I can’t stand this jerk and now he/she is my boss! I’m not gonna listen to one word. I’m doing my own thing. I should have got that promotion. Life sucks.”
This puts the new supervisor into an immediate bind. “How do I keep my old friendships intact and get the employees who do and don’t like me to do their work?” The answer starts with an Early Conversation, alone and with both types of employees, perfectly customized for their ears.
To your friend, it should come out something like this: “You and I go back a long way. I have always appreciated your friendship and your job skills. I have new responsibilities now and I don’t want them to ruin our relationship. I have people watching over me who expect results, so I want to be able to count on you to do your job just as well as before. I’m going to have different boundaries with you as your boss. I know you won’t expect me to play favorites. I’m hoping you will be one of my top officers.”
To the employee who is not a fan, it should come out something like this: “I realize you wanted this position and I got it. We may not have been friends before; however, I have always respected your hard work and job skills. I have new responsibilities now and I’d like to be able to count on your help and experience and knowledge just as before. I’m hoping you will be one of my top officers.”
Same melody, different verses. Waiting to have this conversation after problems arise from misplaced expectations of favoritism or angry apathy means it’s too late to get off on the right foot. It’s important to address these potentially difficult behavioral issues, from each end of the peer spectrum, as soon as you are in your new role.
Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999. His books include Contact & Cover, Streetwork, Surviving Street Patrol, and Tactical Perfection for Street Cops. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.