How to Manage Your Friends (Without Making It Awkward)
Navigate the transition from co-worker to boss so you can lead with confidence.
When you’re a fast-rising millennial stepping into a managerial role for the first time, there’s certainly a lot to think about. You’ve probably wondered if your older colleagues will consider you experienced enough.
Or maybe you’ve thought about how the shift in responsibility will affect your work-life balance.
But many new managers have a worry that’s seldom addressed, even though it’s widespread: how to navigate managing peers and friends.
What should you do when people who have always been your equals are now reporting to you?
This transition can be awkward and anxiety-provoking to say the least, yet typical advice for new managers tends to gloss over how to manage the social and emotional changes.
Here are some practical tips to help you successfully ease the stress, lead with confidence and keep your relationships intact even as they evolve and change.
1. Realize having friends at work is still a good thing.
You’ve probably come across management advice warning you how employees need a leader, not a friend. As a new manager, your first impulse might be to put on your manager hat and cut off any friendly ties.
The truth is, cutting off these friendships is not only unnecessary but can actually have a negative impact on your work and your organization.
Research has shown the powerful benefits of having friends at work. People who have friends at work are not only more engaged, but their organizations are more profitable than those in which close friendships are less common. Friendships don’t merely improve your workday — they’re good for business.
Part of managing your own professional growth and becoming a leader is realizing relationships dynamics change. Sometimes you’ll need to redefine boundaries. This is true emotional intelligence and something every effective manager needs to master.
2. Address the awkwardness directly.
If you have employees who used to be your peers, the worst thing you can do is assume the elephant in the room will disappear. It’s far more likely the uncomfortable situation will only fester and get worse.
While you may assume you’re the only one who feels awkward, the truth is your friends are probably feeling uneasy, too. Because they’re your subordinates, though, it’s even more likely they’ll be hesitant to broach the touchy subject. They’ll look to you, their new leader, to make the first move and address the issue head on.
When you talk with your employees, clearly state the obvious. You could say something along the lines of, “Since I’ve become your supervisor, our relationship has changed, and I know things can feel a little awkward at times.” However you phrase it, don’t put this conversation off.
Also recognize it’s okay if you don’t have all the answers. Feel free to say something like, “Have you felt a shift, too? From your perspective, what’s changed?” Then be honest that you’re not entirely clear on how your friendship will play out with this new dynamic. It’s important to be truthful. It’s okay to be vulnerable.
3. Put some extra thought into tasks you assign your friends.
In so many of life’s situations, friends help each other out — and of course it’s considered a good thing! They also cut each other slack when needed and step up to make each others’ lives easier during the tough times. These hallmarks of friendship are normally so welcome in our lives, but these dynamics simply don’t belong in your working relationships.
Maybe you’ll give your friend extra work because you assume he’ll want to help you out during a busy season in the office. Or you’ll want to do a friend a favor and assign her less-involved tasks. Neither of these scenarios is professional behavior for a manager, even if you’re falling into these habits without realizing it.
To guard against these patterns from creeping into your management style, ask yourself some of these key questions when you’re assigning responsibilities:
Am I relying on my friend to understand how stressed I am right now? Am I hoping she’ll bail me out?
Do I expect more from my friend because I know him personally?
If I didn’t have a personal history with this person would I be handling this differently?
These questions and their honest answers can guide you back to the right path. As difficult as it can be sometimes, you should be treating all of your supervisees as uniformly as possible. No matter how well-intended, there shouldn’t be any underlying personal motives for assigning a project to any of your employees.
4. Get comfortable with emotions.
As counter-intuitive as it sounds, anytime you’re leading with integrity and dedication to your organization, others might respond with strong (sometimes negative) emotions. Colleagues, especially former peers, may become angry, resentful or passive-aggressive in response to decisions you’ve made. You may find strong emotions cropping up within yourself, as well.
You should always respond to others with compassion and support, but with the proper boundaries in place, you’ll learn that other people’s reactions actually aren’t yours to worry about. This might be a radical new way of thinking for you, but it will serve you well.
Accept that maybe you’ll always be perceived as favoring a certain employee. Perhaps some of your coworkers think you should go a little easier on them because they were so recently your peers. If you lead with integrity, however, you can rest assured that you’re leading in the way that’s best for your organization.
5. Reach out to your new peer group.
It can be easy to forget you’ve just gained a brand-new peer group! Why not embrace them? Invite one of them for lunch or coffee. Seek out mentors and ask them to share wisdom about the inner workings of your new department. This new leadership role is likely challenging for you in many ways. Looking to more experienced colleagues for pointers can only help.
Good news: studies show the awkwardness subsides.
When Harvard Business Review recently asked middle managers from around the world about their most common work worries, navigating the peers-to-employees transition didn’t even make it into the top 10.
By the time people become C-level executives, there are plenty of other concerns: leading across multiple groups, talent management, how their organization as a whole is performing, and more. They have much bigger issues to tackle and so will you.
For now, all new managers are unaccustomed to leadership roles and feel the pressure of changing workplace dynamics. It’s completely normal to feel uneasy. But there are graceful and professional ways to navigate these transitions that will serve you well in every stage of your career.