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4 Steps to Leading Well When You're Managing Friends

August 12, 2021

By Randy Hall


It wasn't too long ago that during a coaching session a director level leader said to me “I can’t be friends with them, I have to be their boss.” It’s not a new sentiment. Many managers think they have to choose between having a supervisory role in a business and being friends or friendly with the people they supervise. It gets even more challenging when someone from a team gets promoted to the management role. When that happens, people they have been friends and peers with for years suddenly report to them in a hierarchical structure.

It’s a trap though. We don’t have to choose between being friends and being a good leader.

You can be a friend and a manager

Think of it this way: If I asked you what a good leader does for a team, what would you say? Things that might come to mind for most of us are supporting them, developing them, coaching them, helping them become more successful, and giving them feedback. Aren’t those the same things you would want to do for a friend? And what about some of the other things that might come up, like being honest with them about their performance, clarifying expectations, or challenging them to continuously improve? Would you do those things for friends if you thought it would be helpful?

Being a friend and a boss isn’t always easy

Okay, now let’s get to the really tough parts of being a manager. What if you call them out on negative or unproductive behaviors? What happens if you need to demote them, or take responsibilities away? And, of course, what if you have to fire them? Well, would you rather fire a friend or leave them unsuccessful or unhappy?  Would you rather help a friend manage competing priorities well, or let them drown in them?  Would you rather be candid with your friends or just be nice and tell them what they want to hear?

Where some managers get this tangled up is in the conversations they have to have at work. These are conversations they would not choose to have with their friends. The real question, though, is centered on intent. If you truly had your friends’ best interest at heart, would you try to have the tough conversations well with them?  

Challenges extend beyond just managing friends

The real challenge is in learning to have tough conversations well with anyone in our world. These include our boss, team, peers, and of course friends. They even include our kids, our spouse, or anyone we have a relationship with. It’s not easy, but it also doesn't mean that we have to be less friendly with our team simply because we might have to give them bad or challenging news one day. Wouldn’t we rather hear tough news from someone you consider a friend who cares about your success and wellbeing?

The reality of “playing favorites” with friends at work

Another challenge people often mention is that they connect more easily with some of their team members than others. As such, it could appear as if they are playing favorites or treating some people less fairly than others. In reality, though, some of the best leaders I know probably push their friends on the team a little harder. They expect more from them and challenge them more often. And if friends take advantage of a relationship with their boss, it’s time for one of those hard conversations. 

How to handle having friends at work

Our choice ultimately is between becoming a leader who can have friends at work, or eliminating our friends at work. Both might seem difficult to do, but having friends probably makes you a more engaged and happier leader at work. 

Here are some steps that can help us have friends at work, even when we have management and leadership responsibilities.

  1. When you have close friends on your team, make sure you discuss the realities of it. Let friends know that they cannot ever take advantage of the social relationship as it will degrade the team and their ability to be successful as well as your own.
  1. Be certain that you are coaching and supporting everyone on the team with similar frequency and intensity. For this purpose it doesn’t matter where they are on the performance spectrum. What we cannot do is give people differing levels of support, coaching, investment or feedback. Doing so paints an unfair picture for your team.
  1. If your culture is a social one, make sure that there are times when the entire team is invited out. Then, during those events, make it a point to spend time with different people. Team events are a great time to connect, bond, and learn about your team.  
How to lead a team when you have friends on it
  1. Check your bias as you organize the work, pay, and responsibilities. When you have a transparent process for promoting and paying based on performance, it’s difficult for anyone to assume that the friendship got someone the job. We need to be consistent here as leaders. A clear process for how you get a raise or a promotion benefits every team, whether the manager has friends on it or not.

Conclusion

It’s difficult for leaders sometimes to separate work from friendships. We are all human and connection with others at work is part of what makes us like our jobs and do them well. Eliminating those drivers of our own engagement just because we have management responsibilities isn’t necessary. We simply need to manage them well so we can continue to enjoy the friendship of people that we also get to work with.


What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.

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