On Managing Your Friends

“I’ve had to delete texts lately,” my client said. “I start typing but realize partway through that it isn’t cool to share what annoys me at work with her anymore.”

Holy cow, the complexities of promotions in friendly workplaces.

You used to be peers. You talked over lunch about your days, you rolled your eyes together about That Person on the team… and now you’ve been asked to manage the team. Now not only are you in charge of That Person’s career path, you’re also responsible for your friend’s performance reviews, too.

The anxiety about encountering such awkward social situations keeps many people from management in the first place. Why trade friends for responsibility?

I don’t think you have to. Like any uncomfortable identity shift, life will hand you moments in which you cross a bridge into unknown territory. Some friends will follow you along the twists and turns and some will stay back, taunting you and throwing stones on which they’ve painted “WHAT A SELL OUT.”

It’s not your job to control your friend’s ability to reimagine a new version of your friendship. But here are some tangible steps you do have control over:

1. Call a spade a spade. Go out for a coffee together and say something like “I’m excited about this new stuff at work but I know it might be weird for a while while we navigate new roles. How do you feel about it?” The important thing to emphasize here is this: if you don’t talk about what’s awkward, you either seem stupid or dishonest. Of course this is going to be tricky. But inviting conversation about how it’s tricky for both of you opens the conversation enough to recommit to the next phase of your friendship.

An ability to talk about hard things and have faith in the friendship (despite the fact that some periods will be more challenging than others) is a defining quality of leadership.

2. Identify a role model. Somewhere, somehow, you know a leader who can talk like a real person but is also reliably professional. You trust her instincts, you know that you could approach her for guidance and there is something really soothing about the fact that you never hear her speak badly of others.

Once you identify this leader, mentally bounce your hardest social situations off of her. What would this leader say in response to your friend’s passive aggressive text? How does she handle the boundaries of friends at work? How would she handle a conversation with a team member who needs to start wearing deodorant? (Welcome to management.) 

Managing can be overwhelming; role models helpfully remind us that we’re not the first to do anything. 

3. Find new peers. You need new people to text. Developing relationships with others at your management level gives you a safe peer group among which you can discuss confidential information. If you’re not finding connections internally, reach out to manager friends in other workplaces. It is helpful to normalize your managing experience by hearing about the stuff going on at other companies (AND HOOO BOY IS STUFF GOING ON OUT THERE HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF UBER I MEAN REALLY.)

You will be less tempted to share confidential information with internal friends if you have a healthy channel to absorb it. Vent upwards and outwards, no exceptions.

4. Stay in your lane. It isn’t your job to make sure your friend can sleep at night because you were promoted. Don’t apologize for your progression or feel guilt about his feelings — and you do not need his permission to grow in your career. If you follow the above advice, you have demonstrated that you are glad to have a new work opportunity AND you’re eager to evolve your friendship too.

But. He may not be ready to receive this generous offer. 

At the end of the day, you cannot control the emotional growth or maturity of anyone but yourself. So if your friend is going to hold it against you, if they’re going to be resentful and stick their tongue out when you’re not looking, then you keep on keeping on. An inability to accept change is your friend’s Achilles’ heel — not yours’. Continue being reliably professional and, if he’s lucky, he’ll save the friendship by growing through it.

Are you a manager? Have you ended up in weird social dynamics since becoming a manager? Join us this summer for manager training. We’re going to talk about it all, normalize modern managing and help you find your way through it.