How to make the transition from friend to boss


By Deirdre Elphick-Moore


I have been promoted, which is great, but I will be managing colleagues who have become friends. How to I make the transition from friend, to boss?

We all need friends at work…

…to seek advice, to celebrate a major client win/milestone with, to vent about how demanding, controlling, unreasonable, ignorant, awful, and stupid the boss is. That’s what friends are for.

There are proven benefits to such workplace friendships. Research from Gallup says employees who have best friends at work are more engaged and that their organisations show higher profitability and customer loyalty than those in which friendships with colleagues are less common.

Abraham Maslow argued that a sense of belonging is one of the most basic human needs, right after food, water and safety.

But close friendships can be complicated when you’re the boss

But if you’ve recently been promoted into your first managerial role, you will begin to understand that having close friends at work can also be complicated.

Before, you and your friends complained about the boss behind their back. Now, you’re the boss, and they’re complaining about you behind your back. They might expect preferential treatment and other employees will worry about favoritism.

“Sometimes I feel that people don’t take tasks and projects as seriously as they should because they think they can use our relationship to their advantage”

A friend, who finds himself in a similar position, said: “It’s hard to adjust to managing people who used to be my co-workers. Sometimes I feel that people don’t take tasks and projects as seriously as they should because they think they can use our relationship to their advantage. It’s hard to know where to draw the line because we used to work at the same level.”

These concerns seem to fall away as leaders move up in the ranks

At higher levels of management, they have bigger problems to tackle. By contrast, first-time managers, have fewer responsibilities and are unaccustomed to leadership roles so they feel the psychological effects of shifting workplace dynamics much more acutely.

What can you do to overcome this challenge?

Be clear

Yes, you can still be friends with your subordinates but everyone needs to realise that your work relationship has changed. Set clear expectations and boundaries. For example, talk with your friends about the new responsibilities you face. Explain that you are accountable for the development and performance of your friends and their co-workers.

To be an effective leader for the team, the amount of time you spend with them and the tone of your interaction will have to change.

Be fair

When it comes to bonuses, raises, promotions, support, and resources, leave your personal biases aside. If your friends deserve them and justifications are well documented, then great. If not, and your friends are still rewarded, then gossip, politics and distrust will follow.

Be aware

When you have your ‘leadership hat’ on, all eyes are on you. So pay close attention to the signals you’re sending. How much time, energy, and resources are you giving your friend compared to others? Ask your own manager or a mentor to observe and provide feedback.

Be prepared

I was taught that relationships have a four-stage life cycle: choice—beginning—deepening—ending. When you go from friend to boss, the friendship as you’ve known it has ended. You and your friend must choose whether it will begin again in this new phase. If he, she, or you can’t adjust, then you have to move on. But don’t burn bridges. You never know who may be leading you one day.

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