People spend a lot of time at work, so it's natural for them to form bonds with coworkers. In many cases that's a good thing. Some evidence shows employees who forge friendships at work actually have better engagement and productivity than those who don't.
But while office friendships can potentially bring benefits, they can also become complicated pretty quickly when a person gets promoted and suddenly finds him or herself in the position of boss instead of buddy. Exactly how do you set appropriate professional boundaries with a friend you sing a duet with every weekend at the local karaoke bar? Can you remain objective when you write up her performance review? Will you be able, or more importantly, willing to, discipline her effectively?
Experts say it's possible to successfully navigate this common workplace challenge, but in order to do so you have to be able to carefully recalibrate the friendship so it fits into a more professional mold.
"This has happened to me a few times during my career. What I found most helpful was to talk openly and honestly about the new situation," says Janice L. Marturano, founder and executive director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership and author of the book "Finding the Space to Lead."
The first step is acknowledging the change out loud. "Pretending that nothing has changed is a big mistake," says Marturano. "And, just as problematic, is an approach that makes it seem as though everything has changed. You are still the same two people, but there is now a difference in responsibilities, and that will shift some things." In these initial conversations, it's more important to listen than to talk. Once you understand how your friend feels about the change, you are more prepared to proceed effectively. "Respond with as much compassion and clarity as possible. As with most relationships, if it gets off to a good, honest and open start, it can be a great thing for everyone," says Marturano.
The next step after clearing the air is to set boundaries. Establish a clear line between your personal and professional relationship, says Jean Bauer, a speaker, author and career coach. "For example, maybe you still maintain your friendship outside of work, but keep it professional at the office," she says. This might mean that you no longer eat lunch together every day like you used to or spend your time chatting around the water cooler, but you can still keep the friendship the same outside the office. The goal is to refrain from favoring—or appearing to favor—your friend over other team members because of your relationship. "It's important to look impartial," says Bauer. Take care to avoid the opposite extreme as well. In an effort to appear truly unbiased, some individuals might decide to suddenly pretend they have no relationship with their friend and appear overly bossy or cold. This approach can just make the other person resentful. "I don't think you have to cut off the friendship, but I do think you have to change it," says Bauer.
Bring clarity to the relationship by establishing clear expectations for the team. As a manager, the more clear you are about what's expected, the easier it is not only for people to meet your goals, but also for you to hold them accountable to those goals. It's also easier for you to be fair because you're holding everyone to the same standard. Having rules about who gets plum assignments or handles the less favorable tasks helps reduce the risk of favoritism, says Bauer.
Organizations can assist managers to successfully navigate interpersonal challenges like these by offering training for employees in management roles, something that's missing at many companies, says Bauer. While the right training won't erase the "weird factor" involved with becoming your friend's boss, it can give you strategies to aid in establishing an effective working relationship.