You are NOT a Friend

Many managers struggle to strike the balance between being a boss and a friend. The two aren’t mutually exclusive and in a professional setting, you have to be the boss first. If you don’t it will not only hurt your career but also could ruin your friendship. The challenge becomes exponentially more difficult if you have been a friendly coworker first before being promoted to a managerial role. The transition from friend to a manager is likely one of the hardest transitions to make during our careers. Therefore it has to be done intentionally it is not just going to ‘happen’ to ensure you can strike the balance between becoming a great boss and maintain a friendship.

In our latest OverTime podcast, we spoke to Ross Allmark, Head of Ticketing at the music start-up DICE. We covered a broad range of topics but one of which I thought was of interest, how to balance being a friend and being a boss, he, like most of us, struggled with this but relied on the following words of wisdom;

In my work with fast-growing scale-ups, I’ve noticed how the start-up ethos of close company cultures, sometimes almost familial, can make the transition much more difficult. As the start-up grows and matures, process and reporting lines are put in place. This is not only a foreign concept for employees but also a foreign concept for new managers as the guidelines and standers of management within the organization have not been set. Loyal and high-performing employees are promoted but are not given any guidance, training or even time to think about how they should approach management and most importantly transition from friend to ‘boss’.

Trying to wear both hats will result in failure of some kind so do think about how you can be a great boss and also maintain a friendship.

Here are four things you should consider as you make that transition;

1) Set Communication Lines

Define your own set of communication rules that you will abide to in order to avoid ‘manager’ and ‘friend’ conversations fusing into one big mess. Not having a separation can create extra stress on your employee/friend as it can be difficult to differentiate what is an ‘asking from your friend’ vs ‘asking from your manager’. The burden of this transition should always be on you, not them. This means extra effort on your part to ensure you can play both roles. Remeber, it’s your world that has changed, not theirs. You have to think about what kind of manager you want to be in this context. Keep in mind that whatever approach you use with your friend has to translate to those within the rest of your team. It will do a lot of damage if there is a perception that you have favorites within your existing friends, trust me, I have been there.

When I made a transition from friend to a manager I immediately established my own set of ‘internal’ communication rules. I didn’t necessarily share them to my team or friend, but they were my own guidebook as I did not want to two worlds of management and friendship to collide whenever I could control it. I used official work communication tools such as Slack and email for all primary contact as their manager. I would avoid using WhatsApp for work-related matters especially when they had the day-off or on the weekends. If we were having a social conversation I would avoid bringing work into the conversation. I approached designing this ‘guidebook’ by thinking about how I would appreciate a friend/manager contact me. I’ve lived the reality of blurred line by working within my family business and new all too well the extra stress that comes with feeling like your whole world revolves around work. In this case, even though we were friends, I was now their boss, and no one likes to hear from his or her boss on the weekend, so I adjusted accordingly. Obviously, I didn’t ask for the same rules to be applied to me, it was me that needed to think and adapt, not them.

2) Establish Ground Rules

Think of it this way, you are inheriting a team, not a group of friends, and your role under this ‘hat’ is to ensure that your team performs and delivers on the goals set by the organization. As their manager, you have to be damn sure you are clear on what their goals are, followed by one to ones with each team member to ensure they are clear on what role they play to make that happen.

If you are struggling to make the transition, try to focus on group meetings instead of one to one, this can help establish the new ways of working and also demonstrate to the team that you see them all as equal. It may be uncomfortable but don’t shy away from establishing the lay of the land early on, and this may mean having an uncomfortable conversation with your friend. You may feel more comfortable explaining the position you are in, how you want to ensure you can be a great boss whilst maintaining the friendship and what they can do to ensure it all works out. The first couple off one-to-ones with your friend is likely going to be uncomfortable, but I urge you to push through and stay the course. Treat them like an employee that you know and understand really well, give them clear goals, focus on their development as an employee and don’t let them get away with clearing the lines, or worst of all, not respecting them. It will do you a deserve and lose your credibility with the rest of the team if it is perceived that you can’t ‘manage’ your friend.

3) Party on Your Own Time

This can be a strange part of the transition but as a manager, you have to be able to command respect. I have witnessed managers at company socials go frat party crazy in front of their teams and end up being the drunkest, loudest and enabling others to join them. The sociability and party culture in some start-ups can really create some fuzzy lines, you are your own boss but think about your team before you start lining up the shots. This is all dependent on your company culture and those in your team, but you may have to adjust to ensure you can make the right kind of impact when you come in on Monday morning.

The other downside when alcohol is involved and you are trying to establish yourself as a manager is that you will naturally gravitate towards your friends. In front of the rest of the team, this can ‘un-do’ all the great work you have been doing to work on the perception that you have favorites. Ensure you aren’t ‘cliqueing’ away with your friend circle and making sure everyone in the team is having a good time. I thought of it as if I was hosting a party for my team and my role as host was to make sure everyone I invited (my team) was having a good time, especially new starters! This was not my time to go wild and crazy, I used my personal time for that. As I said, depending on work your work culture this may not work for you, but keep in mind that once a manager always a manager, it’s not like you can take that hat off when it’s convenient for you and you want to let your hair down.

4) Don’t be a Jerk

Just because you can’t be their friend at work doesn’t mean you don’t care about them. If you have been friends before your change in reporting lines you will naturally have a lot of empathy for them. You know their hot buttons, their strengths, their weaknesses, all the ingredients that can lead to a great working relationship. Don’t try to put up a ‘wall’, and instead be open and transparent from the start with your existing friend. Explain that it’s important to maintain the friendship, but explain that you have to focus on being a great manager for not only them but for the rest of them the team. You can establish your own set of communication rules together so that they feel part of the transition as well. As much empathy as you have for them, they will have for you, so don’t feel you need to isolate yourself and manage this transition on your own.

Good luck.

If you not sure on how to navigate your new team dynamics OverTime Leader runs a 'Team Dynamics + Feedback Workshop" that can help you take the driving seat.

Gillian Davis