Leon Gettler: Can you be friends when you’re the boss?

It’s the most difficult transition for any manager. You finally got that promotion that you have been working towards and all of a sudden, you find yourself managing people who were your peers yesterday. Some of them might even be your friends. How do you get them to respect your authority? Can you still be friends?

Linda Hill and Kent Lineback at Fortune say you can’t be friends when you’re the boss. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why. First, friendship exists for itself- very different from the boss-subordinate relationship. That relationship is all about making sure the job gets done, nothing more. Also, friends are equals while bosses and subordinates are definitely not. And friends don’t check up on each other all the time, or pull each other up when one of them steps out of line.

Hill and Lineback write:  “Given its paradoxical nature, the boss–subordinate relationship is easy to get wrong. Instinct, gut feel, and natural chemistry are poor guides for the boss. They’ll push you away from people you instinctively don’t like and pull you toward those to whom you feel naturally attracted. Yet, it falls on you, as a boss, to work with and create the right relationships with both. All your relationships should be bounded and defined. They’re not about liking, chemistry, or personality. While those factors don’t disappear, and you will have to deal with them, they do not and should not define your fundamental relationship with your people.”

Leadership specialist Dan McCarthy also points out reasons why it’s not a good idea. He says it creates a perception of favouritism. Also, the relationship could influence or inform decisions on tough issues like lay-offs. Employees who are your friends might have expectations of you that are unrealistic or unprofessional, such as sharing confidential information, or always giving them advance notice, or doing special little “friendly” favours for them.

“All employees need to complain about their bosses now and then, even the best managers,’’ McCarthy says. “You’re kidding yourself if you think you’re immune from this. However, if you see your employees as friends, you’re more likely to take it personally. Friends let their hair down outside of work and sometimes do silly things with each other. Managers are supposed to set examples and be role models. So, as a ‘manager-friend’, you’re either going to be a boring, uptight friend, or an unprofessional, immature manager. You pick.”

Claire Suddath at Bloomberg says it’s not that big a deal these days and there are some places where it works. But then, not every company is like that. And besides, she admits there are certain boundaries. “The weekend, it turns out, is the most common boundary that people designate in boss-employee friendships. There’s something about a Saturday dinner that’s different from one on a Wednesday.”

In other words, the circumstances have to be right. And in the end, it’s all about managing boundaries. As some specialists advise, you need to be absolutely clear about the relationship. You don’t play favourites, you don’t go divulging confidential information and remember, if someone is underperforming, you’re their employer first and friend second.

Do you think you can be friends and still be boss? Have you ever been in that situation as a manager?



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