How to Handle Managing Your Friends

I spoke with a digital agency recently and they shared some of the common challenges that their line managers experience in their roles. I resonated with all of them and this week, I am going to write about one in particular that we spoke about – managing people who are also your friends.

It’s a common challenge and not one that is regularly talked about, particularly at digital agencies.

So, let’s get into it. We’re going to talk about four principles that you can keep in mind when managing friends.

Own it

Very few challenges, if any, are solved by a lack of ownership. This is especially true with challenges that involve awkwardness, such as the awkwardness that can appear when you move from being someone’s friend and peer, to being their friend and manager.

The best place to start is to own this awkwardness and not to let things get worse by not talking about it.

So the first step is to address the fact that there has been a shift in the dynamics of your working relationship. You are now someone’s boss, not their peer. You’d talk about this whether they’re a friend or not, but there is even more emphasis required when you are also someone’s friend. Have a hard conversation as soon as you can and everything else will be far, far easier.

Establish clear boundaries

Like the previous point, this is important for a manager to do anyway, but it’s especially important when the dynamics of a relationship including friendship. This can only be achieved by two actions which will need to be led by you:

  1. Being clear on what boundaries should exist.
  2. Communicating with them consistently about keeping these boundaries in place.

The boundaries themselves are likely to be unique to your role and the type of manager that you are. Whilst I can’t define these completely for each and every one of you reading this, I can share some examples so that you can think about what may apply to you:

  • Discussion of general work challenges or problems outside of work.
  • Talking about their personal development plans and progression outside of work.
  • Sharing information about colleagues with them because you’re closer/trust them, such as promotions or pay rises.
  • Using them as a soundboard for management issues that you’re facing.
  • Your team member asking you for favours or support because you’re friends, as opposed to their requests being fair and reasonable for a manager to do.

Focus on the goals of the team and company

You need to be very clear with your team what success looks like – both for them as individuals via their personal development plans, along with what success as a team or company looks like on the projects that they all work on.

In the context of managing friends, these goals become your north star and focus and mean that friendship is very much secondary to the job that you need to do – together.

For example, if someone isn’t progressing very well or if they are struggling with their performance on a team project, it doesn’t matter that you’re friends. What matters is that they have a progression plan to work towards and you have a team project to complete. This means that you can (and should) have difficult conversations with them if necessary regarding their own performance on these things.

This is why being clear on them to start with is important too – you can’t really focus on goals or objectives if you haven’t been clear on them to begin with.

Get comfortable with not pleasing them all of the time

When you are someone’s peer, you often share success together and share failure together. Whilst this often applies to a manager and team member relationship too, there are inevitably going to be times when you’re not aligned with all of your team members when you:

  • Make certain decisions.
  • Give them difficult to hear feedback.
  • Tell them they aren’t being promoted or given the pay rise they expect.

You need to accept that situations like these are going to happen and therefore, there are going to be times when you have to handle them with people who are your friends too – making things a bit more difficult for you.

Whilst being aware of these situations happening doesn’t fix the situation entirely, being prepared for them and accepting that they will happen, will mean that when the time comes, you won’t try to avoid hard conversations.

The fact is that the more you progress in your own career, the more senior you become and the more people that you manage, the more likely you are to do things that not everyone will agree with.

If you try to please 100% of the people, 100% of the time, you won’t get as far a you could as a manager and won’t drive performance as much as you could.

Before we wrap up for now, it’s worth saying that you don’t need to become a robot and remove all forms of kindness, empathy or friendship from your work relationships. A manager can be a friend as well as a manager, so don’t think that you have to suddenly leave a friendship behind.

But you do need to think about points like those above if you are going to be able to strike a balance between friendship and management. It’s perfectly possible and effective managers do it all the time, but it’s unlikely to happen unless you actively put the effort into it.

Also remember, this isn’t all on you – any relationship, especially a friendship, is a two way street – they also need to do their bit which is why things such as open communication and boundaries are so important.

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