Summary. With the amount of time we spend with our coworkers, it’s understandable that we develop strong friendships with some of them.
With the amount of time we spend with our coworkers, it’s understandable that we develop strong friendships with some of them.
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How many hours will you spend with your coworkers over the course of your lifetime? If your job is a typical 9 to 5, that means you’ll spend around eight hours a day, five days a week, for roughly 40 years, with the various people you work with. That equates to almost 90,000 hours total. So, a very long time.
Understandably, it would only make sense for some of these connections to blossom into something more personal, like friendships. And that’s a good thing because having friends at work has been proven to increase job satisfaction, performance, and even productivity.
But there is a flip side to this. Close friendships also have the potential to cause friction, especially for those of us who work in hierarchal environments. Once you are promoted into a leadership position, you will inevitably be required to make tough decisions and evaluate the people on your team fairly, whether or not those people are your friends. This presents a real challenge if you are a new manager transitioning from the role of “work-friend” to the role of “boss.” When one person in a friendship moves up, the dynamic changes from that of equals to one of meritocracy.
Navigating the boss-friend dynamic is even more difficult today than it was 15 years ago. Before the existence of iPhones and social media, people generally knew much less about each other’s private lives, and collaborated mostly during office house when colleagues were available in-person. Today, new technologies and social sharing have made us reachable around the clock. Social etiquette is vastly different: 32% of workers are friends with their boss on Facebook, 19% follow each other on Instagram, and 7% on Snapchat. Sixty-eight percent of workers have their boss’s cell number; 60% have met their significant other; 24% have visited their manager’s residence; and 34% have solicited advice from their manager on personal matters.
With the rise in work friendships — and everyone knowing perhaps a little too much about each other — our latest research sought to identify the most effective way to manage your relationship with friends at work when you become their boss. We surveyed 200 male and 200 female recently promoted, first-time managers across 17 countries between January and August 2020, and asked them the following questions (among others):
- How do you maintain relationships with colleagues you are friends with?
- What happened to your friendships when you were promoted?
- How have your friendships been affected since you started your new role?
- Which of your work friends are you connected to on social media? Which platforms?
- What has changed since taking up your new role?
- What do you miss about the times before you became a boss?
- How has your behavior changed since you were promoted?
- Do your friends influence your decision making? If so, how?
- Who do you offload to in times of stress?
We found, rather worryingly, that more than 90% of these first-time managers have struggled to navigate the boundaries between being a boss and a friend, and more than 70% have lost friendships since becoming a manager. But this still didn’t answer our question: How do you manage someone you used to be friends with, and do it well?
To explore this question further, we analyzed data from their responses and then conducted follow-up interviews. Our goal was to hear about their experiences in more detail and validate our findings. Through their responses, we identified five ways you can find the right balance between being a boss and a friend in “the information age.”
Acknowledge the power shift.
Relationships are fluid, and the ones that last often involve open and clear communication. But for this to happen, the people involved must learn to renegotiate or re-discuss the parameters of their relationship as it changes over time. Interestingly, more than 80% of the first-time managers we surveyed did not address how their promotions changed the power dynamics with their former peers — and regretted waiting too long to do so. Many were not proactive about acknowledging the new meritocracy, and assumed any awkwardness that existed between them and their friends would disappear over time. But they were wrong. Many of their friendships have suffered as a result.
Healthy relationships require a degree of honesty, often described as radical candor— the ability to address the problem at hand, even if the feedback is harsh (as long as it comes from a place of caring). If you are a new leader managing a friend, it’s important to face the reality and acknowledge that your relationship has changed sooner rather than later.You can do this by taking time to speak candidly to your friend, explaining how you feel about your new dynamic and how you’d like to keep any awkwardness at bay. Denying your feelings of discomfort may cause you to come across as disingenuous. At the same time, you need to empathize with your friend’s situation. You could say, “I’m a little uncomfortable, too, bringing this up, but I value our friendship, and I want to maintain the bond we have. Some parts of our relationship might change at work, and I think it’s better we call them out now so we’re on the same page.”
Accept your new role.
Your behavior as a new manager should be congruent with your new responsibilities. Within our study many first-time managers found this difficult to do, and often fell back into “friend mode” with their closest colleagues, particularly those they were connected to on social media. This often occurred when they felt stressed or angry. Many resorted to gossiping carelessly about work challenges or sharing confidential information.
Once you are the boss, it’s essential to be respectful and treat all your team members equally. Never gossip with your friend about colleagues. When you’re a junior colleague chatting with peers, this kind of talk may be inevitable, and even make you feel closer. But as a leader, it’s your job to fix friction between team members and find solutions — not to get caught up in the problems. If you set a bad example, you will lose credibility and trust. After all, who wants to be led by someone who spreads negativity and encourages drama?
When you need to vent, find a colleague you can confide in at your own level, such as another manager, or a mentor to share and offload. You must also take care to do so in the confines of a safe space and never the public realm of social media. Additionally, you can solicit a neutral party, like a coach, who has zero ties to your organization and your network.
Be consistent and fair.
Another part of accepting your new role is being consistent in how you treat everyone on your team. This means that you cannot have favorites, and if you do, don’t show it. If your team members suspect partiality, they may grow to resent you or the person you favor, and other toxic behavior could ensue.
For example, if you’re heading out for lunch, extend the invitation to your whole team, not just those on your team you’re most friendly with. In doing so, you may even discover new work-based friendships: In fact, more than 50% of our respondents reported developing new bonds with colleagues through this practice.
Don’t let emotions get in the way of tough decisions.
Being the boss means you have to accept that not everyone will like you, and that’s okay. At the end of the day, the brutal truth is you’re required to make the tough decisions. That’s why you’re the boss. It’s important for you to recognize that if you’re friends with an employee, you may be blinded to their flaws, or you may not be able to place personal feelings aside so easily when you need to. This is why you have to be extra cautious about not letting your friendships influence your decisions, including raises, assignments, and layoffs.
Let’s take layoffs, for example. This is probably the hardest leadership decision you’ll ever face, and you should accept that letting go of employees (or firing a bad employee) is an unavoidable part of your job. You can’t hold someone to a different set of standards just because you are friends — that’s nepotism.
One way to treat everyone fairly is to put in place evaluation systems, such as objectives and key results (OKRs), and use it for everyone equally, so you’re relying on objective data, not subjective.
Manage how much you share on social media.
We don’t recommend befriending or following coworkers on social media, regardless of the platform. Your friends may use it to flaunt their bond with you making their colleagues (your direct reports) jealous. For this reason, 10% of our respondents unfollowed and unfriended colleagues (and friends) after they were promoted. Many told us that doing so helped instill clearer boundaries between them, and reduce the likelihood of oversharing. Others did not, choosing instead to tighten their privacy settings, allowing them to maintain a personal network that exists in isolation from their work network.
Whichever strategy you adopt, our research suggests that outside of work, never share any information with your work friends that wouldn’t be shared inside an office. In doing so, you could damage credibility and undermine all of the preceding tips.
So remember, while workplace friendships have their benefits, they do have the potential to cause problems as your career paths diverge. Don’t ignore the tough conversations. It’s best to face the problem head-on as you transition from “work-friend” to “boss.”