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How to Manage a Friend at Work

by | Feb 14, 2022 | By David Dye, Winning Well |

When you manage a friend at work start with clarity and keep communication open.

Your first leadership role can be challenging when you manage a friend and people who, until yesterday, were your colleagues. When you understand the cause of these challenges, you can take the lead and create a positive experience for yourself and your friends.

  1. Lead Before You’re Promoted
  2. Clarify Expectations
  3. Identify What Role You’re Playing Right Now
  4. Be Clear, Not Perfect
  5. Apologize As Needed
  6. Weed Your Garden
  7. Build a New Peer Group

My first chance to manage a friend didn’t go well. Joe stomped into the meeting room, slammed the door shut, and yelled at me, “How could you let this happen?”

He had just been fired by the company president.

I snapped back, “Me?? I’m not the one who didn’t show up and let the team down over and over again!”

He was angry, but I was frustrated and felt betrayed too. I’d put my credibility on the line to help him, but in the end, he’d gotten himself fired.

What made it worse: for the last year, we’d been friends.

That all changed when I was given the responsibility to lead the team.

Problems When Managing Friends

When we ask a group of new leaders about their biggest problems, this is always one of the most common.

It’s one of the most difficult challenges for most emerging leaders. We’ve even watched experienced leaders stumble when asked to address or lead a team of their peers.

In fact, it’s a Shakespearian dilemma: Prince Hal faces this challenge when he ascends to the throne and becomes King Henry V. His old drinking pals feel ignored and betrayed.

There were several problems that kept me from being an effective leader for my friend. You will likely encounter the same problems when you manage a friend.

1) Your desire to be liked and accepted

Positional leadership, even when you are an outstanding human-centered leader, means taking responsibility for decisions that not everyone agrees with. It means holding people accountable and it means that the group who you naturally want to like and accept you won’t always feel that way.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting other people to think well of you and have a desire to belong – it’s a very normal, human, and healthy value so long as it doesn’t consume you.

However, when you choose to lead, it will come into conflict with other values.

2) Your loyalty to the team and the mission

This is one of those “ANDs” that is so important–your friends may feel you’ve abandoned them, but you haven’t. You’ve added an important loyalty: to the organization, your team, and the mission.

Learning to balance both takes some work, but to your friends who don’t understand this tension, it can feel like betrayal.

3) Inconsistent behavior

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V, Prince Hal partied with the best of them–he drank with the renowned lush, Falstaff, and nothing about his behavior said “leader.” Then he took the throne and treated his friends as if they were beneath his notice. He ignored them, tried to act “noble,” and insulted them.

The problem was inconsistent behavior. The Prince wasn’t a leader when he hung out with friends. Once he became King and tried to act kingly, his friends were understandably hurt.

4) Unclear expectations

Conflicting and unclear expectations are the most common problem when you manage a friend. When you move from a peer role to a positional leadership role, some of your team may expect to get a “pass” on poor behavior, others may expect favors or special treatment, and YOU may be expecting your friends to work especially hard because of your friendship.

All of this leads to massive disappointment when you do hold team members accountable, you won’t do favors that would hurt the team, and your friends don’t show any special effort.

5) The fact that not everyone can handle it

Some people are able to manage the tension between friendship and supervisor. In my experience, however, it is the exception, not the rule.

It takes a great deal of maturity for both people to be able to do this.

How to Manage a Friend at Work: Seven Ways to Lead

My experience didn’t have to end the way it did. Early in my career, I didn’t know about the problem I’ve just described. The good news is that a few Winning Well leadership practices can help you manage the transition from peer to positional leader:

1. Lead from where you are, before you’re promoted.

Leading from where you are, without a formal title, will often lead to you being asked to fill titled leadership positions.

It also helps to ease the transition. If your friends all know you as someone who:

  • Sets an example
  • Practices healthy friendship (where you hold one another accountable)
  • Empowers others, and
  • Already balances the mission with your role on the team,

then you won’t surprise them with radically different behavior when you change positions.

However, as a team member, if you are constantly critical of other people and your supervisor, it will be difficult for you to lead friends when you have a formal leadership role.

2. Clarify expectations – yours and theirs.

This is the essential step in the transition to lead friends. Have a direct and honest conversation about the transition and your mutual expectations. In this conversation discuss these topics:

  • Commitments to your team and to the organization
  • Your management expectations
  • Your leadership values
  • Organizational mandates.
    Also:
  • Ask your friends to be honest about their concerns or expectations of you.
  • Discern if there are areas where they feel you are being unjust.
  • Be realistic about the times you will have to make decisions that are in the team’s best interest even if it conflicts with what you personally would like.

You want to prevent surprises. Your team needs to know where you are coming from. Don’t let it be a ‘gotcha!’ moment later on.

3. Clearly identify which role you’re playing.

This is difficult for some people because it takes a greater level of maturity in your thinking and relationships, but is very helpful for avoiding misunderstandings when you manage a friend.

When you’re talking with a friend, clearly identify the role you’re in. Are you speaking as a friend or as their team leader?

For example: “As a friend, I am so sorry. That stinks! How can I help?”

“As the team leader, I can give you tomorrow to take care of your problem, and then we will need you back.”

4. Be clear, not perfect.

Be very clear about expectations, goals, and desired behaviors. You will never be perfect; so don’t try to act as if you are.

Your friends and former colleagues all know the ‘real’ you, so don’t suddenly try to act as if you’re perfect in ways they know you’re not. It’s fake and your leadership credibility will suffer.

It’s okay to be you. Take responsibility, be as clear as you can, and then:

5. Apologize as needed.

Leaders often struggle to apologize, but it’s even more pronounced when a former team member is leading the team. Don’t let your insecurity and desire to be liked keep you from owning your junk, apologizing, and moving on.

6. Weed your garden when needed.

Sometimes it just won’t work. For example:

A former friend continued to take advantage of our relationship and, despite my best efforts to clarify expectations and help him correct the behavior, nothing changed. I had to be clear about the situation: “I want the best for you and I know this is difficult, but if nothing changes this will affect your employment.” He eventually took advantage of a second friend and supervisor and got fired.

You can’t control another person. Your job is to be the best leader you can be and give everyone on the team every opportunity to succeed. When someone isn’t interested in their own success, care enough to move them off your team.

7. Build a new peer group.

Develop relationships with other leaders, find mentors, and get coaching. There is nothing like a group of people who understand the challenges you experience and can share meaningful wisdom.

You can’t get this from your team. Over time, I built my own personal Board of Directors–people outside the company who I could learn from, confide in, and be accountable to.

Your Turn – Manage a friend at work?

It can be hugely rewarding to lead colleagues and manage a friend, but it’s your responsibility as a leader to set clear expectations and act fairly. Even experienced leaders can benefit from reviewing their relationships to make sure they are healthy.

How do you maintain healthy relationships with your direct reports or your own leaders?

What other suggestions do you have for how to lead your peers? 

See Also:

7 Mistakes that Frustrate Your Co-Workers and Damage Your Brand

How to Be a More Courageous Manager

 

David Dye helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the award-winning authors of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and hosts the popular Leadership without Losing Your Soul podcast. David is a former executive and elected official. David and his wife and business partner, Karin Hurt, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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