Difficult Conversations – Navigating the Boss Versus Friend Relationship

Hi, I’m Nicola from The People Mentor. Welcome to my podcast series on difficult conversations. In it, I’m answering some questions that I’ve been asked and hopefully sharing some wisdom from my 30 years of leading teams.

Today’s podcast explores what to do when you get promoted and you’re in a position where you have to manage someone who is a friend.  

Boss versus friend situations can be tricky to navigate so in this podcast, I hope to give you some insights and helpful tips on how to deal with things like having difficult conversations in this kind of situation.  

So here goes, today’s question is; 

“Hi, Nicola,  

I’ve just been promoted and now I’m managing my former colleagues. One, in particular, is a good friend who I socialise with out of work. What I want to know is will our relationship have to change, and how will I go about dealing with those difficult situations when they crop up.  

I’m keen to do a good job and I’d hate to think that it would affect my professionalism, but at the same time, I don’t want to lose our friendship.” 

So can you remain friends with someone you’re managing, and if so, should you? 

There are a few ways of looking at it.  

You could argue that we humans are social creatures who like to feel a sense of belonging and that in the workplace, friendships are an important part of that.

Workplace friendships can promote trust, respect, collaboration, empathy, and openness. How well will you really work with others if those values aren’t upheld? 

Conflict and tension in teams occur when people fail to understand each other and work together, and this is where performance and engagement suffer.

Any manager worth their salt wants to get the best out of their teams. They want to manage harmonious teams that work and behave professionally. This is far more likely to happen when people relate to each other, trust each other, and get along.  

People may say that being friends with your colleagues can make things less professional, but there’s an argument that says the opposite is true. That in fact, workplace friendships can improve professionalism.  

If you feel connected with people on that level, maybe it will make you more likely to want to go the extra mile for each other. 

Of course, the question of managers being friends with the people they manage can get complicated too. Maybe you’ve been involved in that sort of relationship and you’ve experienced the negative side.  

Essentially, the relationship between a manager and a team member exists for a purpose, and that purpose is to accomplish defined work.

Blurring the boundaries with friendship, from which we get a feeling of support and belonging, can create difficulties.  

For managers, it can interfere with decision-making.

Can you really be impartial when deciding who gets the promotion?

Could you handle a discussion about poor performance with someone who you consider to be a friend?  

This is often the main argument for why manager/team member personal friendships shouldn’t exist.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t be warm, friendly, and supportive, it just means that you have to be aware of the boundaries and purpose of the relationship and not lose sight of them.  

So how then do you deal with a situation where you end up managing someone who was a friend before you got promoted? 

Clearly, there are some things you’ll have to consider.  

Firstly, the possible impact it could have on the team.  

Think about how it might appear to the rest of the team if they perceived that you were giving someone preferential treatment. What about if it looked like you were giving the best projects, the best feedback, or recognition to them over others who might consider themselves more qualified or capable? 

Would you get people wondering whether that person truly earned things on merit, or whether their relationship with you played a role? 

What about when someone has an issue with that person? Would they feel comfortable coming to you about it, or would they think that you wouldn’t take it seriously because of your friendship? 

These sorts of things can stir up a real hornet’s nest in a team.  

Then there’s the impact on the team member you are friends with. Being friends with the boss might seem like a positive thing, but it can end up being complicated.  

The power dynamic between the two of you will have changed. They may find it difficult that they’ll be getting feedback on their work and performance from someone they consider a friend.  

Maintaining appropriate boundaries is also a problem. Would you feel comfortable venting about the job to a friend if they were also your boss…especially if the venting was about them?! 

Then there are the issues of them worrying about what would happen if the friendship broke down. Could it affect them professionally? These considerations will be going through their mind.  

Finally, there’s the impact on you as a manager. Managing people is complicated enough without adding the dynamics of friendship to it as well.  

You’ll be obligated to treat the person the same as everyone else, give them constructive feedback, and make decisions that could affect their career. One day, you even may need to fire them or make them redundant.

Could you do any of this and remain friends?  

The best way to go about managing someone who is a friend is to have a conversation with them when you get promoted.  

You could something like “ I’ve thought about how our relationship might change now I’m managing the team. I don’t want others on the team to worry about whether there’s any favouritism going on and I don’t want either of us to worry about where our boundaries should be.” 

Then work together and talk about the relationship and what you can expect from each other. This should hopefully mean that you can successfully manage them with boundaries in place while maintaining your friendship.  

Personally, I’ve seen people transition to managing their former teams really well.

In a previous role, I had a set of teams, and one team had a very key team member who helped a manager of the team and who showed real aptitude.

She went for promotion and she got through it and became manager of the team she’d actually been on. She managed it really well because she was already a leader in the team. People had already been looking towards her when they needed support and help so that really helped.

She got promoted again very quickly after that because she really had the aptitude to lead.  

There was a very quiet team member in the team who, because of the other one’s presence, didn’t show up as much. Anyway, I had a feeling about her so I asked her if she would consider going for a temporary promotion. She had never considered it before but she decided to give it a go. She was an absolute natural manager.

She cared about the team but she had enough authority about her that they knew her boundaries and what her expectations were. But they also knew how supportive she was.  

She also managed to transition into the team very well because she involved them, she was there for them, and she showed that she genuinely cared. They were also very clear on her boundaries and when they were overstepping.  

So I have seen people go on to manage teams they were a part of and I’ve seen it done really well.  

Personally, it’s something I never felt comfortable with, so rather than manage my former teams,  I often went on to move to other locations and teams. I felt that I always wanted that sense of a gap between me and my original team. Though I did go back on one occasion, several months after I had been part of a team, because there had been that gap, it worked really well.  

Of course, it’s not just friendship dynamics that can make things difficult when you manage teams, there are a whole host of things. I remember for me, it was my grade as a manager.  

In one role, I was in a group of managers in area operations who doled out work to various offices, planned what they were going to do, and questioned what had happened and why work hadn’t been done. I was in a position where even though I was in the same grade as the other managers, they still had to feed into me and do what I asked work-wise.

Some of them really took exception to it.  

A while after that, I was actually accounting to people who were a grade above me and asking them to make sure that their teams were doing what was asked. They took exception to that as well. It was an incredibly difficult time and it took some adjusting.  

I can remember having one of the managers approach me and ask me what I was up to, giving them this work.

I apologised and my manager who wasn’t normally in the office, because we worked remotely from each other, was in the office and overheard. She heard me apologising and saying that this was what needed to happen and that these were the reasons why.  

She told me off for apologising but I felt that by apologising, I was defusing the situation and calming it down. I was still giving the explanation and I wasn’t backing off. I was still saying that this work needed to happen.

It took quite a while for people to accept it, and it was only when I got the same grade as the other office managers that they took it more easily.  

They felt that an ‘underling’ shouldn’t be giving the orders, which was an interesting position to be in.  

So team dynamics can make or break a workplace and managing relationships with team members can be one of the most challenging things about management.  

This can especially be the case if you’re a new manager who’s been moved from another department to manage the team or you’ve been promoted to manage a team of people you consider to be your friends.  

It makes sense that your instinct might be to try and maintain the friendships to keep them on the side.  However, this can create difficult situations.  

As a manager, you have to navigate the balancing act of showing people you care versus making sure they respect your leadership and being able to make tough decisions.  

If you’re too close to someone, it can make it impossible to be impartial when you’re making decisions or giving feedback.  

It can also appear that you’re giving preferential treatment to people you’re friends with, which can cause resentment, conflict, and disengagement in the team.  

No team member is above the rules, and you can’t be seen to be turning a blind eye to things like poor performance or other poor conduct.  

The thing to remember once you are promoted to being a manager is that you don’t need to become cold and aloof, but you don’t need to be everyone’s best friend either.  

You can be caring and supportive without overstepping boundaries.  

You can help people grow without becoming over-involved.  

I would always advise that if you find yourself in this situation, have open and honest conversations with people about how the dynamics of the relationship have changed.

Talk about boundaries that need to be set and maintained on both sides, and how ultimately, you are all working in the business with the same goals in mind, irrespective of any relationship you may or may not have.  

Do you feel like you need some support with having difficult conversations? 

When it comes to thinking about what to say and how to say it, do you feel way out of your depth? 

Are there issues that desperately need to be addressed but you can’t seem to have that difficult conversation? 

My ‘Making Difficult Conversations Easier’ programme is all about helping managers have the confidence to deal with problems, hold difficult conversations, and build engagement to create an open, honest, and high-performing workforce.  

Imagine having a team where nobody is scared to speak up about something, that performs better, and is productive, engaged, and profitable. Imagine that everyone wants to work together for the good of the business and no issue is insurmountable.  

It’s all possible. 

Get in touch to book a discovery call.  

That’s all from today’s podcast. I hope it gave you some food for thought and that it makes some of those difficult conversations you’ve been dreading feel that bit easier.  

Goodbye for now, and see you next time. 

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