We were friends, now I’m your boss!
Most of us spend at least a third of our lives in some form of working environment, interacting with colleagues and peers for many years if not decades. It is only natural that close friendships are developed as you share each other’s lives, both professionally and to a large degree – personally.
And in the main, this is actually a great thing! Who wouldn’t want to work with their friends?
However, if you suddenly find yourself in a position of authority over your friends, how can you handle this? How can you still keep your friendships whilst also being responsible for ensuring a friend’s performance and productivity? Is it even possible?
We believe so, but it takes a great deal of discipline. People who are newly promoted and find themselves in charge of close friends tend to react in one of two ways: they completely alienate themselves from their previous relationships, avoid all personal connection and thus appear aloof, or they make light of the change in personal dynamic and continue the friendship as if nothing has happened.
Neither approach is sustainable over the long-term and at the very least it can be damaging to your sense of well-being, not to mention the productivity of your team. To walk this line with your friends you’ll need discretion, humility and a concrete approach to boundary setting.
We would argue that all good friendships have these characteristics – so if your friendship isn’t able to accommodate this new change – how good was the friendship in the first place?
Don’t “flaunt” your friendship amongst your fellow colleagues. A shared joke amongst friends is the quickest way to alienate others in your team – the moment people feel there is an “in” crowd and they are not part of it, trust amongst the team will break down.
Research suggests that when a manager is perceived as a friend, teams won’t be motivated by lofty speeches and posturing, but will require messages that feature clearly defined goals.
A leader seen as distant or outside of the social circle, a CEO for example – and therefore more powerful – is expected to be confident and unashamed, but one who is close and accessible is expected to be humble. You’ll need to consider which approach is right for your context.
Last but certainly not least, to maintain the respect of your employees while being friends with them, you must be careful to distinctly define the boundaries between yourself and your staff. If you notice a change in your workplace friendships, you’ll face the challenge of being this person’s employer first and friend second. The welfare of the wider team or business must take precedence over your friendship.
The best first step is the honest conversation. You might imagine this could feel a little awkward and often it can do – but no more awkward than you and your friends are probably already feeling… “so then… I’m now your boss. That probably feels a bit weird for both of us… Shall we have a chat about how we make this work?”
The conversation that follows can explore how you are each finding the shift so far, how you want to ensure the rest of the team do not feel alienated by your friendship, how you manage positive and constructive feedback both ways (you could benefit from the openness of your friend in telling you how you can be a better manager) and how you might address difficult conversations.
Having this conversation early on in this change of dynamic can make a huge difference to your success and your well being, avoiding you worrying about how the other person is thinking about the whole thing.