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But You Say He's Just A Friend

Here’s the story: you’re out on a Thursday night with close friends that you work with. You’re having your beverage of choice and having a great time. You guys talk about work, you talk about the ski trip you’re all planning on going on together, and perhaps you talk about who is dating who at the company. Your start-up is all consuming, but at the end of the day, you feel lucky that you’re working with a bunch of people who have all become close friends.

Friday morning comes. Promotions are announced. Score! You’ve been promoted! Super exciting...until you hear that you are now managing a close friend. The friend who you hang out with all the time and were hanging out with last night. The friend who has seen the tears, the anger, the joy that you’ve expressed about your job over the last few years. The friend who was also up for a promotion...but didn’t get it.

One of the hardest things about being a new manager is managing people with whom you are personally close. In extreme cases - as illustrated above - you may be put in the position where you are managing a close friend who is the same age and tenure as you. In a less extreme case, we often end up managing people who we really like, and struggle with the gnarliness of having “authority” over people with whom we are personally close.

To be a great manager, you need to understand that “friend” and “manager” do not need to be mutually exclusive states, and that navigating these relationships will take both empathy and discipline.

First, let’s talk a little bit about the why before we get to the how. Why should your friend be concerned when you’ve all of a sudden gained power?

Well, funky stuff starts to happen when you’re given power in a team. Research shows that as individuals gain more power, they become less likely to get input from folks with expertise; rather they seek out information from those who are similar to them. When someone has power, feelings of competition and rivalry may naturally (and even subconsciously) ensue on a team. The team overall may be less willing to take risks or share information.

Couple the above phenomena with the theory that when we are “closer” to someone socially, we are less objective and more emotional in our decision-making, managing and being managed by a friend can be a minefield.

I often see two things happen when people manage friends: 1) people become very “bossy” and official. They try to act in a buttoned-up / corporate way and go way too far towards being a managator.* Or, 2) people become incredibly deferential to the friend they are managing. They don’t want to step on toes for fear of harming the friendship and never state what they need or expect from the relationship.

So here are some ways to manage when he’s no longer just a friend:

  • Acknowledge the awkwardness: first things first - have a conversation with your friend that you feel a little awkward being put in this position but that you know you guys can make it work. Just put it out there that it’s weird.

  • But, after you acknowledge the awkwardness, work to jointly develop a set of norms for how you’re going to approach the manager / managee relationship. Set expectations upfront of how you want to work together and how you want to communicate. Obviously, all managers should do this, but especially important as you are navigating a more complex relationship.

  • Remember what your role is as a manager. It’s not to tell people what to do. It’s to motivate, communicate, help structure work and to develop. Lead with “what can I do to help you in your job?” Think about what you can do to make your managee / friend’s work life easier. You’ll be even more excited to help because you care about this person on another level!

  • Show vulnerability while having confidence that you were promoted for a reason. Managing a friend incites the most severe case of impostor syndrome possible. You’re already feeling queasy that you’re not ready to be a manager AND your friend knows you really well - therefore can “see right through you”. Don’t question or undermine the decision that made you a manager, but do share and be open with your friend that there’s a lot that you need to learn and will work on developing.

  • Don’t be afraid of giving constructive feedback, but be careful you don’t get personal. Try really really hard to give frequent feedback to your friend and more importantly, encourage your friend to do the same. The sooner you can make feedback an unemotional activity that you do as part of your work, the better. If you wait to give feedback until you’re frustrated, it’s going to be far worse, far more emotional and far more hurtful to your relationship.

And a final point that may just bother me, but I thought I would add:

  • Don’t use the royal “we” - yeah, you are now part of a different tier of individuals in the company, but when you lean on the “we” -(e.g., “We think you’ll be ready for promotion in six months”) it feels really crappy, impersonal, and underhandedly exclusionary to your friend. Language matters!

At the end of the day, the qualities of a good friend - empathy, patience, wanting the best for the other person, and compassionate honesty - are also the qualities of a great manager.

*Managator (noun) a manager dictator. Synonyms: despboss, manacrat, bosspressor.


  • We often have to manage people with whom we are socially close. In start-ups and fast growing organizations in particular, we may be in the position of managing a close friend.

  • When we’re put in a position of power, we may end up changing our behavior subconsciously: this includes seeking input from and showing favoritism towards those who are most similar to us, not those who are most qualified or knowledgeable.

  • Additionally, our teams may be less likely to take risks or less likely to share information when we gain authority.

  • To effectively manage a friend, you should start by acknowledging that you feel awkward in your new position and solicit your friend’s help in defining and structuring the managerial relationship.

  • Additionally, you should use great general manager hygiene, including setting expectations and providing constructive, compassionate feedback.

Thanks to Michael Cullen for providing the suggestion for this week’s blog post on managing friends!


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