Should You Maintain Friendships When Managing Former Peers?

— November 16, 2016

Maintain friendships when managing former peers

Now that you’ve been asked to step up and take the lead, you might be concerned about maintaining the friendships you’ve built with former peers.

Managing others goes hand in hand with building strong relationships, and this is something you should aspire to with your new reports, whatever your previous relationship.

The importance of strong relationships

Successful leadership requires high levels of engagement, and this is brought about by mutual trust and respect between managers and team members.

Building positive relationships is part of creating a culture of autonomy over authority, motivation over obligation, and innovation over banality. In some contexts, work is necessarily process-driven and repetitive; however, most teams and organisations could stand to benefit from the heightened engagement that results from empowering people within their roles.

Aside from the benefits of strong relationships with team members, you stand to lose a lot by not developing them at all. You may have been advised to forget previous relationships and ‘act like a manager’, but this can cause resentment, and damage relationships that might have been very helpful in building team loyalty and shaping performance.

Getting buy-in by selling, not telling

We’ve come a long way since the authoritarian manager-employee relationships of previous centuries. Managers are no longer there simply to be deferred to, and employees are there to be heard as well as seen. Today, job candidates are selected on their ability not to follow mundane processes, but to think laterally and contribute to organisational change.

Despite this, there is still a common concern among those who lead or manage that being friends with reports is unprofessional, and that ‘professional distance’ is required in order for employees to respect their seniors.

But while there are obvious barriers that should not be crossed in any professional relationship, some level of friendship between managers and team members is actually conducive to engagement.

Aside from meeting the basic expectations of their roles, employees release certain amounts of discretionary effort. Making demands and exerting your authority is only likely to get you so far; to get your team members to go above and beyond, you’ll need to engage with them on a different level.

Think about the last thing you put a lot of effort into in order to achieve outstanding results. Did you do it just because you were being paid, or just because someone told you to? Or did you do it because you believed in the objective of the project, and felt you could make an excellent contribution?

As a manager, it’s your job to convince your team members of the importance of their work, and make sure they feel highly competent. This is the fastest and most effective way to generate real commitment, and is bolstered rather than hindered by existing friendly relationships.

Maintaining friendships as a manager

Even if you would sincerely like to maintain good relationships with your former peers, you might be worried about staying on friendly terms through some of the more somber situations that are bound to arise.

Most people shudder at the thought of telling someone they consider a friend that they’re not performing well enough, or communicating negative circumstances regarding their role. But when handled well, honest feedback and communication (both ways) can actually strengthen relationships at work.

Giving feedback to a team member should never be about criticism for criticism’s sake. Instead, it is about sharing goals, and providing the support needed to meet them. If performance has been below standard, this needs to be addressed, but in a constructive way that encourages the person in question to believe in their own ability, and to find better ways of approaching their work. The chances are that you’ve had to provide similar encouragement in your personal relationships outside of work, so there’s no reason why this should break friendships developed in a professional setting.

Fundamentally, it’s very simple. To be an effective leader, you need to build and sustain excellent relationships with your team, whether or not you choose to label these as ‘friendships’. Far from being a disadvantage, existing relationships could be a great help in doing this, giving you supporters in the team.

Managing former peers is the topic of a webinar with leadership expert Nigel Girling, which you can sign up to here. You can choose to receive a recording afterwards instead of attending live.

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Author: Jannike Ohsten

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