In an ideal world, we would get to choose our boss. We would carefully consider who communicates effectively, leads with high emotional intelligence, can teach us the skills we need to succeed, can push and inspire us in the ways we want, can motivate us without micromanaging or under-leading, can coach us to grow, and can offer us the flexibility to live our best lives. And while we're at it, we would pick someone we enjoy hanging out with too.
The vast majority of us are not living in that world. We get the boss we get, and we learn to deal with it -- or we don't, and we move on.
But what if you're the new boss that someone got, and you're pretty sure you're not the one they wanted?
Maybe you got promoted over your colleague to a leadership role and you anticipate that your former peer feels frustrated and resentful. Maybe there was a reorganization and you're suddenly on top of the hierarchy.
You've got big shoes to fill, and your feet are feeling tiny.
If you're not the boss they wanted, you don't have to suck it up in silence, command with a heavy hand to show your authority, or ignore it and pretend that it's just fine. You can and should address it directly, or else it will become the elephant in the room, taking up space that could be filled with an honest conversation.
Here are five things to do to move the conversation and the relationship forward.
1. Acknowledge it and do a reality check.
"I'm assuming that you having me in this role wasn't what you'd hoped for/imagined/expected. Did I get that right?" Your colleague might speak up -- or they might minimize or deflect. Your goal isn't to make them admit it aloud; it's to help them see that you understand their perspective.
2. Empathize with your colleagues.
"I can understand how you'd want someone else in this role." Or, "It makes total sense that you'd feel frustrated or even resentful about this." Empathy includes understanding how they're both thinking and feeling, as well as indicating that you'd like to help.
3. Ask them to share what they want(ed) from a different leader.
"What were you hoping you'd learn from a new boss? What kind of exposure and visibility did you want? What skills did you want to develop? What kind of support did you want?" This isn't the time to make promises or tell them what you can't do. Just demonstrate that you're listening and taking it into consideration. Write down what they're saying. It will not only help you remember the conversation but also send a deliberate, visible message that you're taking this seriously.
4. Ask them what they hope won't change.
"What did you have going on with the last boss that you hope doesn't change with me? What would you like to keep consistent? What's working well for you right now?" Again, you're not making promises, but you are demonstrating that you're listening and that you care.
5. Make a plan for action and feedback.
"Let's make a plan to discuss how I can support you in getting what you need. In the meantime, let's also check in once a week to give each other feedback on how it's going. How does that sound?" Assume that this first conversation is just that -- the first one. Keeping the lines of communication open in both directions will hopefully go a long way in creating a working relationship that works for each of you.
You may not be the boss whom they hoped for, but you can be the boss who surprises them for the better.