If you have recently been promoted into your first managerial role, you understand that having close friends at work, especially ones on your team can also be complicated.

Before you became the boss, you and your friends ‘smoked behind the bike shed’, in other words did things together that your boss probably didn’t approve of.   Now, you’re the boss, you are responsible for setting standards and one of your jobs is to stop people ‘smoking behind the bike shed’!  So what should you do?  Should you be their friend or be their boss?

Having run many first time manager development programmes I have found this is to be a hot topic with the delegates.  I frequently hear comments such as:

  • ‘It’s hard to adjust to becoming the boss and I feel that some of my team members don’t take my authority seriously.’
  • ‘One of my team has a performance issue, but it’s tricky to deal with them as we have known each other for years and I don’t want to lose their friendship.’
  • ‘I sometimes worry about favouritism and dealing with team members differently because we have I have been friends with some of them for so long.’

It’s important to recognise that the role of management is to maximise the performance of your team.  That’s what management is all about, it’s about getting stuff done as efficiently and productively as possible.  So ultimately being a manager and being a close personal friend are incompatible with each other.  Friendships exist for their own sake, friends are equals and friends don’t manage each other’s performance!  A manager subordinate role is different, it exists to get work done, the relationship is not equal (the boss has more authority) and a boss has to manage the performance of their team.

However, that doesn’t mean as a boss you must be aloof and authoritarian.  Your team will want a human relationship with you.  After all, Maslow famously argued that a sense of belonging is one of the most basic human needs, right after food, water and safety.   So you do need to interact in a warm and friendly way towards your team, listen to them, be concerned about their welfare etc., but focussed on work.

So how do you get the balance right?  There are a number of things that I recommend to first time managers:

  1. Set clear expectations. Your team needs to realise that your work relationship has changed, and so set clear expectations and boundaries. For example, discuss with the team the new responsibilities and challenges you face. Explain that you are accountable for the performance and development of the team.  To be an effective leader, the amount of time you spend with them and the type of interactions you have with them will have to change.
  2. Be aware of your own behaviour. As a manager all your team’s eyes are on you. So pay close attention to the signals you’re sending. How much time, energy, and resources do you give to those you were closest to compared to other team members? Ask your own boss or a trusted colleague to observe and provide feedback.
  3. Be seen to be fair. When it comes to performance reviews, salary increases, bonuses etc. make sure you leave your personal biases aside.  Ensure that performance is clearly evidenced and documented so that you cannot be accused of favouring those closest to you.  If other team members believe you have an ‘inner circle’ then gossip and distrust will follow.
  4. Change.  Slowly change the type of social interactions and engagements you have with their team.  This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t interact with them socially but be are of what the boundaries are.  A boss of mine was very good at this.  For example: he might take the team out for a celebratory dinner or drinks but he would leave at respectable time, and let the rest of us continue on our own.
  5. Be prepared to move on.  Generally relationships have a ‘life cycle’: introduction, beginning, deepening and ending.  When you go from friend to boss, the friendship as you’ve known it has ended. You and your friend must decide whether your relationship will begin again but in a new and different new phase. If you or they can’t adjust, move on. But don’t burn bridges. You never know who may be leading you one day.