Striking the Balance Between Manager and Friend

Updated Dec 21, 20224 min
Striking the Balance Between Manager and Friend

Striking the Balance Between Manager and Friend

Caroline BantonUpdated Dec 21, 20224 min
Striking the Balance Between Manager and Friend

It can be lonely at the top. Managers must make decisions, and there aren’t too many people they can turn to for advice. Managers are privy to information that their direct reports are not, and treating direct reports as friends to bounce ideas off is irresponsible and a fast track to demotion.

This article will explain how managers can determine what is appropriate and what is not regarding relationships with direct reports. It explains why boundaries are necessary. Also, the guide offers insights into what to do when you are suddenly promoted to manager over your team members. How can you find the perfect balance in the friend-manager relationship? Should you even try?

The Need for Friendships at Work

Research shows that friendships at work lead to enhanced emotional well-being. It’s important to have relationships with people who you can trust. Sharing life events decreases anxiety, improves productivity, and satisfies our need for human connection.

Of course, this is the case for peer-to-peer friendships, not employee-manager relationships. The latter requires a much more delicate balancing act by both parties.

The Need for Boundaries

A peer-to-peer relationship is an equal one; at least it should be. In an ideal world, there are no power plays to be had, and the two parties can be relatively open with one another at a personal level. A manager, however, must maintain boundaries with direct reports because they have significant influence over the direct report's professional and financial status. And that's a game-changer.

The manager’s role in the relationship is to promote teamwork and guide individuals in their careers. An inappropriate relationship can compromise this role and make effective management impossible. There would be an imbalance in the way that one employee is treated over another. 

Managers should play a supportive role, which is not necessarily a friendship role. Here’s how to differentiate the two and find balance.

A Manager's Role Is to Offer Support, Not Friendship

As a supporter or mentor, you can let your direct reports know that you care about them as individuals, which includes their professional and personal lives. You can offer support in your capacity as a manager and human being, but you shouldn’t be intrusive or divulge your personal feelings.

Here’s an example.

An employee is having problems at home and is requesting time off to sort through some personal problems.

It is appropriate for you to be empathetic to their situation as their manager and to listen well to their predicament. Use your judgment as to how you can accommodate them in terms of work hours, the need for personal time, work-life balance, or support that HR could offer. 0

However, It is not appropriate for you to suggest that you have a drink together to talk about things, or that you personally offer to help the employee with their personal problems in any capacity other than work.

For more on management techniques, read "11 Ways to Succeed As a First-Time Manager"

How To Be a Better Leader

Management training will improve your people and leadership skills and help you decide what action to take depending on the circumstances. Leadership training can teach you how to earn the trust and respect of your team through the following best practices:

  • Sharing and receiving feedback

  • Being open to change and honing your emotional intelligence

  • Encouraging creativity and innovation in an environment free of fear

  • Delegating effectively

  • Setting achievable goals for individuals and teams

  • Empowering individuals rather than micromanaging

Also, practicing the following traits will encourage your reports to be on board with your ideas.

Be Consistent

Consistency is key to being respected. At the end of the day, a manager must treat everyone the same way and never pick favorites. If a perception of favoritism is detected, a manager will have a difficult time motivating their teams.

Be Approachable

Being approachable does not mean trying hard to be best friends with your direct reports. It can simply involve making an effort to keep your door open so that staff can come in and ask questions. Walk the floor and check in with staff on a regular basis.

Join in with team projects here and there and get your hands dirty to better understand life in the trenches. People like others who take an interest in them, so find out what makes others tick. If people are comfortable talking to you, they will feel more confident to suggest new ways of doing things, and you might find ways of leveraging their talents.

Be Honest

As a manager, you will have to be the bearer of good news and bad news. It might be that an individual is not going to get a promotion, or it might be that there will be a pay raise. If you are honest with staff, explain the rationale for management decisions, and don't try to sugarcoat things, you will build strong relationships based on authenticity, not to mention set a good example. 

How to Handle Ex-Colleagues When You Become Their Manager?

An awkward situation occurs when an individual is promoted above their colleagues. Before the promotion, the manager was a friend, but now the new manager must find a way to establish boundaries and change the relationship dynamics.

Here is a scenario to show how to find the right balance.

Let’s say the manager buys lunch in the cafeteria. The manager’s old peers are sitting at one table, and the management group is sitting at another. Which group should the manager choose to sit with? Where should the manager's allegiances be?

It actually does not matter where the manager sits. However, they should acknowledge both groups of people by saying hello, and then commit to a table. That way, the manager is not ignoring or dismissing either group.

Establishing boundaries will mean that new managers may have to remove themselves from social media circles to allow both parties an appropriate amount of distance and privacy.

When taking on a new role management role, it is helpful to have a support network to help you through the difficult times.

For more on becoming a new manager, read "Transitioning From Individual Contributor To Manager"

Managers Need Their Own Support Network

It can be lonely at the top where there must be boundaries set for working relationships. So, it's wise for managers to find their own support networks within the company culture and outside. A mentor can be someone within or outside your organization who has the experience and can provide you with advice. A professional career coach can also give you impartial advice and an objective opinion.

Bottom line: be aware of your own need for support and friendship in the work environment and make a conscious effort to seek them out in the appropriate places. Be a manager at work first and foremost and a pillar of support for those who work for you.

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

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