How do you strategise to deliver against new expectations, whilst maintaining excellent performance against your perception of what got you here? How do you establish yourself as the leader amongst a group where you were previously peer?

There are major pitfalls to avoid to seamlessly establish yourself as “the boss”.

Avoiding the trap of needing to be liked

Being able to have difficult conversations, whether it’s feedback to someone on when you perceive they could perform even better, tackling some culture-eroding behaviour, or dealing with under-performance, is a critical function of leadership.

“Leaders who embrace difficult conversations show their commitment to growth and transparency.

Heidi Grant Halvorson

But we can find ourselves trapped by a fear of risking our perceived good-will with the group we now lead. Our fight, flight, fawn or freeze response can be activated when we feel that something we need to say or do might risk our ‘place in the tribe’, which in turn might deter us from being in that situation, this is avoidance.

This creates a dilemma… Do you risk ‘being liked’ by saying or doing the difficult thing, or do you risk neglecting a key responsibility by not saying or doing the difficult thing; or do you find a middle-ground where you do it, but also veer away from the really challenging and honest parts and so communicate in an ambiguous or caveated way?

Feeling this nervousness, anxiety, or fear of having to do something uncomfortable is a natural physiological response to our sense of threat being activated – likewise, a similar threat can be activated within the recipient at the same time, when conversely, they are also perceiving a risk to their ‘place in the tribe’ by being on the receiving end of the difficult conversation.

The key to navigating your concern is to first understand where it comes from by looking at what you believe to be true about perceived conflict or difficult conversations.

Top Tip

For understanding your mindset around difficult conversations, ask yourself…

  • What are the different responses that you expect could play out?

  • What do you worry about the recipient thinking of you in each response?

  • What could this say about you?

  • What could you do to challenge that perception (if you felt that it arose)?

  • What is critical that they understand from you to mitigate those misconceptions?

Explore how you feel about the situation, challenge yourself to size up how likely those various responses are that you might be fearful of, and forecast what you might do to navigate them if they arose.

By practically exploring your fears or concerns, you will start to acknowledge that they are not as off-putting as you had initially imagined.

Another important way to avoid this trap is to make sure that you’re fully prepared to minimise the risk of turbulence throughout the conversation.

A useful tool to apply is from David Rock’s research from the discipline of Positive Psychology. His SCARF model identifies 5 critical components that are helpful in understanding how to minimise the chances of a threat response being activated for the recipient during a difficult conversation (and therefore minimise the risk of it being hijacked by an emotive response).

SCARF model is an acronym that defines 5 aspects to be mindful of to help us mitigate a threat response being activated (and to activate reward response instead):

  • Status – The perception of being considered better or worse than others.

    Think about: What can you do to level the sense of status for the individual before, during and after the conversation?

  • Certainty – The predictability of future events.

    Think about: What certainty can you provide on the meaning of the conversation?

  • Autonomy – The level of control we feel able to exert over our lives.

    Think about: What can you do to encourage a sense of ownership by the recipient on what they can do going forward?

  • Relatedness – The sense of feeling safe within the group and having shared goals with others.

    Think about: What can you do to demonstrate that you relate to this person and that your intent is aligned with theirs?

  • Fairness – The sense that we are being respected and treated fairly in comparison to others.

    Think about: What can you do to evidence that what you are sharing is fair?

Being prepared in this way can help you to avoid the trap of ‘needing to be liked’ as you can plan to execute it with confidence and clarity and can help to build something that’s more critical to your success as a leader. Trust.

A more critical factor in effective leadership than likeability is being trusted.

When you are consistent in demonstrating credibility, reliability, compassion and authenticity, you will be contributing towards a much more potent factor in your leadership. (cite: Charles Green – Trust equation)

Letting go of the need to be liked, instead prioritising the need to be trusted, and approaching these types of conversations with the right mindset and preparation, will enable you to navigate them with authenticity and in doing so you’ll be building up your credit in the bank account of trust and respect.

Avoiding the trap of holding onto too much

The idea of letting go is really important in the move from peer to boss.

As someone taking the step up into people leadership, it is likely that what got you here was being excellent at solving problems and exceeding the expectations of your role by being great at doing the doing. Only now you’re responsible for delivering outcomes through others, who are doing the doing in your stead.

That means letting go in order to free up the space for you to commit your energy to being excellent at leading others to great outcomes. It means no longer being the person who gets all  the praise, acknowledgement and validation (and glory!). Stepping back from the limelight in order to create more space for others in your team to shine.

That can be unnerving, especially since you’ve built up so much career collateral through being the person who achieved the outcomes, and now the biggest difference-maker for you is less direct, less tangible, less in your control, and more in the hands of those that you lead.

What does remain within your control however, is what you choose to put your attention to that contributes to others feeling clear supported, challenged, inspired, and committed to the direction you drive in.

So, what do you need to let go of to free up the space to become great at your new responsibilities?

The Eisenhower matrix is a really simple tool for thinking strategically about what you maintain ownership of, and what you delegate. Evaluating everything on your to-do list through the lens of a) Importance to your overall goals and b) Urgency to deliver.

Eisenhower matrix. Image by

Often one of the hardest things to let go of at this stage in your career is taking ownership for actions that are in the low importance but high urgency category – the tasks ripe for delegation.

The temptation is obvious – you are an effective operator, you might be a people pleaser, these tasks might be small in their nature and we’re banking all of that good-will by agreeing to get them done. You could delegate them, but truthfully you can get them done so well and so quickly that it’s easier for you to just crack on and get them done. What’s the harm in saying yes?

Taking on one or two of these tasks on occasion might not be harmful in itself, but these tasks compound. Every “yes” to a task in this category is a “no” to something else that you could be prioritising that might move you, your team or the business forward, no matter how much time or effort is involved in it.

“Leaders must focus on the critical few, not the trivial many. Identifying and concentrating on key areas of impact can lead to substantial organisational improvements.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

By holding onto these delegable tasks, you’re limiting yourself to have the impact in the way in which you’re truly measured – moving the important things forward with impact.

Since your outcomes are delivered through other people, every time you commit your attention to one of these delegable tasks, that’s attention that you’re not placing what will truly move your team forward – thinking about what the next level of challenge will be for a high performer, or creating space for creatively tailoring a moment of inspiration for your team, or observing and delivering some thoughtful feedback or praise that will have a lasting impact on that individual.

Stretching into new territory in your career requires creating mental capacity to develop your people leadership skills – so avoid the urge to fall into the urgency trap. It won’t serve you or your team in this next phase of your career.

Top Tip

  • Take stock of the recent decisions you have made on what you have taken responsibility for in your action list.

  • Assess the proportion of tasks in your to-do list that sit in each quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix.

  • Aim for no more than 20% of the tasks as being in the DELETE or DELEGATE category (this is prior to acting on them).

  • Create your “to-stop” list. What are you going to commit to stop doing in order to free up the capacity to focus more on your people’s leadership?

  • Challenge your team to create their “to-stop” list too and share the outcome of your assessment for added accountability.

Avoiding the trap of needing to have all of the answers

It can be tempting to believe that being the boss means that you need to have all the answers – people are looking to you to lead, and that means being decisive, right?

Actually, no – it’s ok not to have all the answers.

In fact, it’s more inclusive, encourages growth and empathy, fosters collective ownership, psychological safety, and greater comfort in embracing problem solving and innovation when you can invite your team into a space where you are willing to openly admit your mistakes, encouraging your team to learn from each other’s experiences.

Not only that but your team will feel more motivated to deliver the outcome when they feel they own a part of the answer.

Research from Amy Edmondson at Harvard Business School defines psychological safety, as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. When team members feel comfortable “expressing their ideas, asking questions, and admitting mistakes without fear of humiliation or retribution”.

Demonstrating your own fallibility, when you don’t have the answers, or where you have made mistakes is a core mechanism for modelling and therefore generating a psychologically safe environment.

This is echoed by Patrick Lencioni who also highlights that when leaders are willing to admit their mistakes and show vulnerability, they are role-modelling that this is an environment where team members can also feel comfortable to share their own struggles. This leads to richer insights, closer alignment and ultimately success.

The net effect of building this safety is greater collaboration, innovation, productivity and success.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

Brené Brown

Vulnerability is more accurately a measurement of courage and is therefore a strength in leadership, rather than a weakness.

Sentence starters for vulnerability-based leadership:

  • “Here’s what I’m currently struggling with…”

  • “I made a mistake, and here’s what I learned from it…”

  • “I don’t have all the answers, and I need your help to figure it out…”

  • “How should we be thinking about this…?”

  • “What are the biggest challenges we face as a team, and how can I support you with them?”

  • “Is there anything you’re struggling with that you’d like to discuss?”

Final thoughts

The biggest change when navigating from being a peer to being the boss is that now your success is delivered through the people you lead. That requires a paradigm shift in your role as doing this well requires you cede some control, step back from the limelight of being the person who delivers outcomes and instead see your role as one that nurtures and cultivates others to shine brightly. That is what success will mean for you moving forward. The faster you can let go of the things that you no longer need to hold onto, the quicker and more effectively you can focus all of your energy on moving the team, and the organisation forward.

Set yourself free to lead!

About the author

Our younique, Nejmi Alexander is a Strategist, Coach, Speaker and Facilitator. He believes that everyone deserves to thrive in their career and is dedicated to collaborating with ambitious professionals, leaders and founders to create the conditions where talent can flourish. In his experience working with clients from Amazon, BBC, Ernst & Young, Accenture, Bloomberg, Multiverse and JBM, Nejmi brings a strategic lens into his coaching and learning approach. He helps teams, leaders and organisations to navigate towards transformational outcomes with a strong bias on practical application of theoretical models, placing an emphasis on values, and on bringing clarity and understanding to one’s professional ‘self’ as a basis to build clarity, action and growth in a direction and pace that is personally meaningful to them.