Ask Liz: Can I be a good boss and a good friend at the same time?

Wednesday 1 April 2020

Question Mark

Dear Liz,

I’ve just been promoted internally to manage a technical team I was once part of, and I feel that I am walking a fine line between maintaining friendships, and making decisions that I know are going to be unpopular. How do I get the balancing right?

Yours Sincerely,
Confused in EC2


Dear Confused,

Becoming the manager of people who were previously peers is one of the most challenging transitions that many of us have to make at work.  There are some pitfalls to watch out for … one of these is to try and maintain friendships whilst also being the boss.  

Let’s ask the question ‘why do I want to maintain friendships?’  Is it because we want to be liked, because we feel uncomfortable being in a position of authority, because we don’t yet know how to be a manager?  I always think that having a clear understanding for the motivation underlying our behaviour brings insight that helps us to come up with solutions and ways forward.  If we want to be liked, then it is probably best to look for friendships with people outside of our team.  If we are uncomfortable being in a position of authority, then it’s a case of growing into being a manager and if it’s because we don’t yet know how to be a manager then this is something that we can learn over time.

Becoming a manager can be daunting and there is a steep learning curve to navigate.  It doesn’t come naturally to many people.  Developing a manager’s mindset is important as is consciously evolving our management style.

The problem with trying to maintain friendships is that it could lead to a perception that as a manager you have favourites as presumably you weren’t friends to the same extent with everyone in the team.  This sets up a team culture of inequality and bias and has the potential to lead to all sorts of difficulties and dysfunctional behaviour.

It’s important, early on, to demonstrate authority, equally, with each team member and to be fair, not least because you may have to make difficult decisions that impact on your direct reports and you will be compromised in doing that if you are influenced by friendships.  I can recommend an excellent book that will help you build confidence as a new manager. It’s Being the Boss by Linda A Hill and Kent Lineback (published by Harvard Business Review Press).  I have recommended this book to many of my coaching clients and they have found it very practical and relevant.

Your team will respect you for taking the difficult step of letting your friendships go in order to be a fair and effective manager.


Liz Codd

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