If you’re like the average American who reportedly works 50 or more hours a week, then you’re probably also like the one-third of surveyed American workers who said they meet the majority of their friends at work. Your shared experiences – good and bad - create a natural bond. People who work with friends report higher levels of job satisfaction, productivity and engagement. Higher levels of engagement increase the average length of stay at an organization. When you enjoy the people you work with, you naturally want to keep working with them. But what happens when it’s time to move up in your career?
You’re ready for that next step up the ladder -- are your work friends? If you should get the opportunity to move up in your own organization (and don’t have to leave to achieve advancement), your friendships will be different. Period. "The dynamics completely change, “ says Robert Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss. "People start to watch you more than ever before." Michael Watkins, author of Your Next Move says that being promoted to a position that manages your former peers, "combines the challenges of any promotion with the additional challenge of people having to recalibrate their relationship with you."
When you are promoted to be their supervisor, you can’t just abandon your work friends, but how you handle the transition from buddy to boss may determine if they abandon you. Here are some steps you can take to clear a few common hurdles with grace.
1. Acknowledge the elephant in the room – There are going to be more than a few awkward moments. Be candid about it. Tell your team that you expect those clumsy uncomfortable moments to happen and give them permission to call you out, let them know you’ll be doing the same. Invite them to give you feedback on what they think a good transition would look like and how to make that happen. You will get some great insight into what they need from you as a supervisor and they will appreciate the fact that you even asked.
2. Redefine and reintroduce yourself – It’s important to establish early on what your new role is… and isn’t. If you’re carrying over some responsibilities from your previous position, it may delay or muddy their recognition of you as “boss” rather than their regular co-worker. On the flip-side, if you are retaining none of your old responsibilities and this new management role is completely different from the expertise and competencies you’ve already established with them as a peer, be prepared that you may have to “prove yourself” to them all over again as skilled and competent as their manager too. Part of this reintroduction should include communicating your expectations of how you all will work together and of setting boundaries for what can no longer be a part of your dynamic.
· Boundaries. There are some conversations that used to be commonplace that just aren’t going to happen anymore. Both you and they know this. But the clearer you can be about which ones and why, the easier it will be to maintain the conversations you DO want to keep having and not feel like you’ve just cut each other out completely.
- Grumbling about management. When the urge to gripe strikes, it may take them a while to remember that you ARE management. When you were “one of the guys” you might all complain to each other about a decision or policy made by “the man”, but now that you are “the man”, your first duty is to the company, not your friends. You should let them know up front that you do want to hear from them if they have concerns or complaints but that you won’t be engaging in (or condoning) a gripe-fest. Telling them that upfront will save you and them from misunderstandings later when you have to cut them off and remind them your role is different now.
It’s also a good idea to just warn them now that some of their complaints will be met with your validation and explanation of those policies or decisions and not an agreement as they might have expected. Your job as manager is to support organizational decisions and help your employees to do the same. If you don’t have a good answer for why the company made the decision it did (whether you really agreed with it or not), you need affirm for them that they have offered reasonable feedback and questions and that you’ll have to ask a few more yourself to help everyone understand the new direction. If you do, in fact, have issue with something going on, the group to seek feedback from (or commiserate with) is your NEW peer group, the other managers.
- Confidential Information. There are pitfalls to privilege. You will be privy to management level information that is not appropriate to share or discuss and all of you know this. Ask your team up front not to pry or pressure you into discussing things with them that all sides know are not appropriate (coworker’s wages, why someone was let go, who’s getting the promotion, if layoffs are coming, etc.). You’ll probably have to remind them (and catch yourself) from time to time, but it’s going to come up. Just call it out with the other elephant.
A less obvious breech may start with the conversations that you’ve had for years that, as peers, were based on common observations combined with personal opinion but now are no longer appropriate. Example: you and Judy would frequently share your frustration with Fred’s constant early exits, late arrivals and unplanned days off and lament about the impact it has on the rest of the team. You’d ask each other why “management” was so oblivious or elected to ignore it. Now that both Judy and Fred are reporting to you, you may have more context as to why Fred seems to come and go and miss more work than the average employee. Let’s say Fred has an ADA accommodation or is taking protected intermittent leave under FMLA. You cannot disclose those things to Judy. So when Judy complains to you that Fred’s missed another deadline and it’s putting her behind, you can’t make excuses for Fred and you can’t tell Judy why it continues to be accepted from him and not others. Welcome to management! Thank Judy for letting you know and assure her that you’ll extend her deadline because of Fred’s delay. You’ll have a separate conversation with Fred about his own deadlines but you can’t discuss one employee’s performance with another employee, no matter how obvious and observable.
3. Watch out for favoritism or over-compensation – You may already be watching that you don’t give the best assignments or the highest scores to those one or two people on your team who were your friends before you were promoted. Believe me, you aren’t watching nearly as closely as the other people on your team. On the other hand, you want to make sure you don’t lean too far in the other direction either and over compensate for that friendship by being tougher on them than everyone else. You’ve got to strike a balance and distance yourself a bit to gain objectivity. When possible, rely on existing policies and processes to level the playing field (i.e. when two people ask for the same week of vacation, who, according to policy, gets preference? Seniority? First come, first serve?).
4. Give it and Get it – Remember the reason you were promoted in the first place and give to your team the proper supervision and leadership they need and expect. If this is your first time supervising, don’t expect yourself to intuitively “just know” what to do in every situation. Get some training, read some books and rely on your new peer group – other managers. But also remember to get the supervision you need from your own boss. You can’t be expected to be perfect and self-sufficient on day-one and your boss is a good resource to coach you through situation and ensure they handled the way he or she would have preferred.
Supervisors and managers can make or break a company. Employees will walk away from extraordinary pay, doing a job they love because of a bad boss. Employees will also stick with a so-so job, making so-so pay, because of a great boss. What makes a great boss? Being their “friend” did not make the list. Employees want their boss to set clear expectations and goals, to recognize accomplishments, to have open communication, to provide growth opportunities, to be someone they can trust and respect and to have enough trust in them to empower them to do their job. Maintaining their friendships won’t accomplish any of those things. Of course, it would be hard to be successful at any of those things if you aren’t at least friendly, but that’s different from being their friend.
If you want to step up and take on the responsibility of management, but that move will require supervising your friends and peers, you’ll need to accept that your workplace friends don’t have to become enemies but the relationship will take on completely different characteristics. If you handle the transition well and commit to doing what it takes to be a good boss, those old friends will appreciate you even more, just for different reasons.