When Work Friends Become Bosses

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We spend a lot of time with those we work with—sometimes more than with our families. Inevitably, work friendships will form. And with the prevalence of social media blurring what’s private and what’s public—A Harvard Business Review article by Benjamin Laker, Charmi Patel, Ashish Malik, and Pawan Budhwar—a work friendship can quickly become a traditional friendship. You’ll learn about their personal lives (according to HBR, 32 % of workers are friends with their boss on Facebook, 19% follow each other on Instagram, and 7% on Snapchat), you’ll discuss mutual interests, and you may do things together outside of work. But what happens when you become your friend’s boss at work? What happens when the person you went out drinking with on Thursdays to let off some steam and complain about the boss becomes your direct report? Suffice to say, your friendship will change in a hurry. Things can and will get even more complicated with this dynamic in a family business. It can be a lot to handle.

Becoming your work friend or family member’s boss, or vice versa, is without a doubt one of the hardest transitions you can face in your professional life. The equal relationship you once shared is now upended by new power dynamics—in an instant. If you’re the new boss, how much of your personal life should you continue to share? If you’re the subordinate, how do you create boundaries? And if the dynamic plays out in a family business, how can you successfully separate the two? In my work as a family business consultant, I have seen this scenario play out many times. The following are my thoughts on how to manage the new power dynamic with your work friend:

Communicate early and often. Talk about the elephant in the room (or the elephant in the family room) immediately. Things have changed, both parties know it and the time to talk about it is now. Anxiety and uncertainly thrive in a communication vacuum, which can poison the waters quickly if you let it. Initiate the conversation and be open and vulnerable. Put yourself in the other’s shoes. And make sure to allow both people speak their minds. This conversation can be hard for both sides, but there’s lots to talk about, like…

Define roles and the rules of engagement. Your new roles are now clear, but what does this mean in practice? Your relationship will change because of this new dynamic, and it’s up to the new superior to set boundaries for how the relationship must move forward. It’s a good idea to limit discussions on personal lives, and always put the “work” part of the relationship ahead of the “friend” part while at work. Be conscious of the fact that other employees might view too close of a relationship with a subordinate as playing favorites. Consider all the factors at play here, and… 

Set professional expectations. Both superior and subordinate must clearly understand what is expected from them in a work setting. This may be performance expectations, communication expectations and what the friendship looks like at work. This will clear up any misconceptions and gray areas and will help both parties get used to the new dynamic quickly. Speaking of expectations…

Become a new you. If you are the new boss in this scenario, it’s time for a new mode of operation at work. You should no longer engage in the kind of workplace gossip you may have before. You’ll also have to decide how you communicate with all your employees—and ensure there are no signs of favoritism, perceived or otherwise. And most importantly, you must understand your leadership style. If you are a collaborative leader who lets their team be heard, you’ll likely have an easier time in this transition. If collaboration isn’t normally your strength… 

Keep the door wide open. It’s imperative to start communicating immediately. But communication is fluid—things change over time. Feelings change. The business may change. Roles may change. Communicate about all of it, as often as you can. Keep your proverbial door open to two-way communication—and take suggestions to heart…

Work on your balance. Balancing work, friendship and family can be difficult, but it’s particularly important in a family business. You’ll have to find the right boundaries that keep family relationships out of the family business. It may feel odd to be a boss at work and a brother at home. But if you can successfully balance the two—and never let work ruin Sunday dinner—then you’re doing it right.

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