How to boss around your friends

Got a promotion? Lucky you—except your work pals now report to you. Here’s how to keep the peace.


(Photo: DKAR Images/Getty)

January is the most popular month for handing out promotions, according to research done by LinkedIn.  That means there are a lot of freshly minted bosses out there trying to navigate new roles. For many, workplace buddies to whom they may have formerly looked for support and advice are now direct reports. Awkward.

Fortunately, experts say it’s possible to not only maintain those friendships after a vertical move, but to use them to your advantage. Kevin Burns, a Calgary author and corporate trainer, recommends you start by talking with you new staff, both to iron out any brewing conflicts and to “remind the team that you’re still one of them.” Friends may be unsure how their relationship with you will change. Will you still be eating at the group’s lunch table? Carpooling to work? Proofing their presentations? Burns suggests meeting with each colleague individually to discuss their specific concerns before organizing a full-team gathering.

New managers can be tempted to distance themselves from former co-workers, but suddenly erecting boundaries aimed at appearing more professional can actually do harm. “If you have to change the way you behave toward your friends at work and you’re going to stop laughing and joking with them, then you have to at least let them know in advance why it’s necessary for you to act differently,” says Stephen Friedman, an executive coach and faculty member at York University’s Schulich Executive Education Centre.

Richard Wong, for one, found that changing his behaviour wasn’t necessary after a recent promotion in recruitment at Western University’s Richard Ivey School of Business. His superiors became his peers, and a friend was now reporting to him. “At first, I was envisioning that work would be work, and then in my personal time, we could have the friendship,” says Wong. “But I found that having such a strict separation wasn’t necessary, and was awkward. I could be myself with friends at work while being a leader.” He also found that taking some time off before assuming his new position gave his old team an opportunity to get used to the new situation.

It may seem counterintuitive, but friends-cum-managers shouldn’t be afraid to use personal knowledge about their colleagues to improve a group’s performance, some experts say. Being aware of a pregnancy, marital problem or a rigorous marathon-training schedule will help you with assigning work, judging reliability and offering the best support to the team. Such knowledge gives you a major advantage over an outsider. “Just be aware that friends could be worried about how much you know about them, so it’s best to keep that strategy to yourself,” says Burns. Venting about frustrations with your new position, or allowing friends to vent to you, is also a bad idea. If someone tries to use you as a sounding board, change the subject.

Your shift to a new role may entail some challenges. Watch out for two-faced friends who seem supportive in private but gossip about you behind your back. Equally frustrating are the friends who now resist offering their help and expertise, or slack off expecting special treatment. They may even seem disinterested in continuing the friendship you’re trying to save. “These behaviours may be temporary. The friends may just need time to lick their wounds,” says Friedman. Offer support, and maybe a bit of breathing space. But remember that a friendship has two sides—maintaining that relationship isn’t solely your responsibility.

While you may want to taper off the frequency of your social activities with work friends to avoid undermining your authority, don’t be afraid to celebrate your new job with your colleagues. “Don’t assume people will be resentful,” says Friedman. “If they are, you can deal with that one on one. But you may be surprised how many people are happy for you.”