Managing People: Don’t be a Friend

Geek 5, Managing people

In the last few weeks, we’ve talked about how managers should not become therapists for their direct reports and provided some responses to serious issues and less serious issues.

Another unwritten rule is similar to that one – managers should not try to be friends with their direct reports.  I’m not saying that you should not be friendly.  As a matter of fact, it is usually beneficial to create a collegial, comfortable workplace.  People are social creatures and we bring those needs into the workplace.  It’s okay to have non-work conversations, tell appropriate jokes and have fun while working.

But there is another one of those invisible lines that can be easy to cross.  As a manager, you cross the line if you go from being friendly to being friends.  Some people can pull it off, but most of the time it ends poorly.  It’s hard to be friends with your direct reports because:

  • You are the boss and have power over his/ her career and future
  • It can look like and lead to favoritism
  • It’s hard to manage a friend objectively – you’ll tend to be too easy or too hard
  • It’s hard to draw the line between on-the-record work conversations and off-the-record friend conversations
  • You might become privy to information or gossip in after-hours conversations that you are required to act on (such as reporting harassment)
  • You have to watch what you say to the associate – you have access to confidential and sensitive information

I witnessed an example of this recently in my office.  There was a group of five people who all did the same job.  They created a very tight-knit group and spent a lot of time together outside work.  Due to some re-organization, a new leader position was created and several of them competed for it.  The one who got the promotion (we’ll call her Jill) went from being a peer and friend to a boss who was trying to still be a friend.  It was a tough situation – especially with one former peer (we’ll call her Mary).  Mary was disppointed to not get the promotion herself and took some of her frustration out on Jill, her friend and former peer.  Jill was struggling to define a new role and learn to work at a higher level job – on top of it, she had Mary being difficult and disgruntled.  Jill tried to balance being a boss and a friend.  She found that she was frequently harder on Mary than the others, because she was worried about being unfair.  Finally, Mary left the company.  When she left, everyone on the team sighed in relief.  The whole team had been impacted by the dynamic between Jill and Mary.  Their friendship did not survive either.

If you enter a manager role with a new direct report – keep the relationship professional but friendly.  Don’t cross the invisible line.  If you get promoted over a peer, like Jill did, you need to have a very clear conversation to set expectations from the start.  You need to be a manager first and a friend second – otherwise you jeopardize your own career.

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