When Your Peer Becomes Your Boss . . .

Clyde C. Lowstuter, President & CEO

“If it wasn’t humiliating enough to be passed over for a promotion that should have been mine, I now have to endure my peer as my boss.  He’s making my life miserable.  While we never had the strongest relationship, I didn’t feel undermined at every turn like I do now.  What a jerk!  I don’t trust him as far as I could throw him.”

Sound familiar?  Has something like this ever happened to you or someone you know at work?  Maybe the scenario is different, but the end result is that you now find yourself reporting to a former peer.  How do you handle it and move forward through a tough and delicate situation?

Here are some concrete suggestions for you to consider.

Top 10 Ways to Thrive, Not Merely Survive

1)     First, keep your ego in check. While it may already be bruised, don’t become overly defensive or reactive at every perceived slight. As tough as it may seem, stay focused on making the best decisions for the business.  Don’t engage in “one-upsmanship” power plays or posturing.  Watch the common tendency to be passive-aggressive toward your new boss or sarcastic when you speak about him.  Others will recognize when your former peer is being inappropriate.  You lose when you point it out.  There’s an old saying: “Whenever you throw dirt, you get muddied and lose ground.”  People will take their cues from you.  If you are positive and operating above the fray, others will appreciate your professionalism and not view you as mortally wounded.

Ask yourself:  “What 3 things can I do to stay up, when it’s easier to feel down?”

2)    Be aware of the potential for awkwardness. Even before you experience the inevitable tension between you, based on your new respective roles, acknowledge the possible difficulty for you both.  Observe that while his current role feels like it would have been a “natural next position” for you as well, let him know that since you didn’t get the nod, you were pleased that he got it.  You might also indicate that you hope there will be other challenging opportunities for yourself in the future.

Be genuinely pleased for his success.  While it may seem counterintuitive, allow yourself to be even more open and transparent around your boss.  You might find it helpful to have a candid discussion regarding your desire to work effectively with him and the company – as you are, like him, committed to the growth and profitability of the company.  Ideally, this will diminish the awkwardness between you and it will also aid in strengthening your relationship.

Ask yourself: “How do I leverage the situation for good?”

3)    Be vulnerable and open to change. Your former peer may feel that it is important to reset the relationship by being tougher with you, initially.  When assertively confronted with an approach different than your own, for instance, you might use language such as, “You may be right.  What else should I consider?”   Challenge his thinking in a positive, non-emotional, straightforward, yet collaborative manner.  If he is sensitive to being challenged directly in meetings, express your viewpoints with him prior to or after meetings.  Discuss ways to create healthy feedback and a problem-solving, collaborative style between the two of you.

Ask yourself:  “How do I manage my vulnerability and move things forward?”

4)    Objectively evaluate your gaps and shortcomings. This may be a good time to evaluate what might have been the deciding factors on his behalf that led to his getting the promotion, and not yourself.  Critically identify any limiting factors in your own skill sets or personality that contributed to your being passed over.  What areas might you need to strengthen in order to achieve the next level of success?  Depending on your position, it might make sense to meet with an executive who occupies a role at least two or three levels above yourself.  The point being – don’t be a victim; own the outcome that you have created, albeit unconsciously.  The single greatest reason for a peer getting ahead of you, talent notwithstanding, is the visibility and level of endorsement that this executive has versus yourself. If you didn’t get the nod, learn from it.  Take responsibility for your successes, as well as your setbacks, as that’s where the true learning takes place.

Ask yourself:  “What 1-3 key areas do I want to embrace?”

5)    Lighten up. If you are upset, where might you be withholding your support from your boss and minimizing his strengths?  Make sure that your own disappointment is not routinely contributing to your negatively judging his leadership methods or behavior.   Find ways to genuinely respect his strengths.  Since he got the promotion, others must recognize and respect his attributes.  What strengths might they have seen?  What would your attitude toward him be if you saw his talents as clearly as others did?

Ask yourself:  “If the situation were reversed and I were the boss, what attributes would I most admire and respect of his?”

6)    Be like Radar. If you recall, Radar was the uber-efficient Army company clerk in the hit TV series, M.A.S.H.  His company commanders never had to ask him for anything, as his anticipatory skills were phenomenal.  By raising your awareness of what your new boss needs and wants, you will significantly diffuse his need for unwanted control.  Also, consider: what are those things that you do / don’t do that trigger behavior that you don’t like?  The simplest way to support him is to Anticipate, Prepare, and Initiate Action.

Ask yourself:  “What does my new boss want and need?”

7)    Let your talents shine. What are your key skills and abilities?  What personal and professional capabilities and strengths do you have that would complement your boss?  Ask him what he needs from you for him to be even more successful in his new role.  Tell him that you’d like to partner together to make the organization wildly successful.  Be an advocate for him and for the success of the company.

Ask yourself:  “What strengths do I have that complement my boss?”

8)    What do you need to succeed? Make specific requests of him to help you be even more successful, serving the greater organizational good.  How can you build greater endorsement and support for one of your initiatives that he considers to be important?  Consider getting counseling and mentoring from other senior leaders in the organization and begin to build broader endorsement for yourself.  Where else and how else might you grow your career and contribute to the organization?

Ask yourself: “What is the one significant thing I need to do differently to succeed?”

9)    Really get to know him outside of the office. Spend time with him on business trips or association meetings.  If he is a decent speaker, recommend him to address your industry’s national meeting, for instance.  By doing so, you would be clearly communicating that you are lifting him up and acknowledging him in his new role.   It is a great way to rebuild natural bonds and to understand intentionality without the politics internal to the office.

Ask yourself:  “What is the best way to comfortably and genuinely make this connection?”

10)    Seek to learn . . . about yourself and others. View this experience as a phenomenal opportunity to be increasingly aware of the empowering and disempowering beliefs and behaviors that drive you, positively and negatively.  Examine the extent to which you might be operating out of an entitlement mentality, and shift to a posture of self  accountability, self-management, learning, and growth.  Start asking yourself, ”How do I really feel about my peer’s promotion?  What meaning am I attaching to this situation?”  If you harbor any disempowering emotions, beliefs or behaviors surrounding the event or the players, you might objectively evaluate the adverse impact on you and others.  Then decide, act, and commit.

Ask yourself:  “What are my two most startling epiphanies surrounding this issue?”


Based on our experience working with thousands of executives, the percentage of individuals who leave their companies after being passed over for promotion is in excess of 90%.  If you want to remain in your organization after losing out on a promotion, then you need to embrace these tips and significantly modify your mindset and behavior, lest you become part of that 90% statistic.

If you’d like to talk to me about this article or your situation, you can reach me at [email protected].


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