A reader writes:
I have great relationship with my manager and we used to be peers before she became my boss. When we were peers, we used to tell each other everything about our personal life outside work. The problem is she still wants me to tell her everything that I do in my personal life, like how I spent my weekends/ days off, etc. And then she likes to advise me on how to handle all my personal problems like she would on my professional problems.
As I said, she is a great manager but I am becoming less and less comfortable working for her since she likes to be involved in every aspect of my life. It’s like having a second mom at work! I have been trying to distance myself from her but she gets really upset when she finds out that I have been holding back.
She and I have the same set of friends, we play on same sport team and she is my friend on every social networking site! It’s really hard to avoid her!
I am looking for a new job, but in the meanwhile, can you suggest anything that will help the situation without offending her?
You have two options: (1) Be straightforward and explain to her exactly why the relationship needs to be different now, or (2) Let her go on complaining that you don’t involve her in your personal life like you used to, and just ignore her complaints, while not giving in. I’d do #1, but if you’re not especially comfortable with that, #2 is a viable option.
If you decide to be straightforward, the next time she gets upset that you’ve been “holding back,” tell her: “Jane, you’re right that I’m not sharing the sorts of things with you that I used to. Now that you’re my manager, our relationship needs to change. I think you’re a great manager and I love working with you, but it changes the boundaries from what we used to have. The fact is, it’s your job now to evaluate my work and we’re inherently on unequal footing. I am 100% comfortable with that, but it does mean that we can’t be friends in the way that we used to. You’re going to have things you can’t tell me, or may need to make decisions that impact me. And I’m going to be more comfortable getting feedback from someone who isn’t a big part of my personal life. Plus, I don’t want it to appear to others that I might get special treatment from you because we’re friends.”
Since you do think she’s a good boss, emphasize that: “I think you’re a great boss. I’m really happy for you that you got this promotion. But we can’t avoid the fact that our relationship will need to evolve along with it.”
If you can’t stomach this conversation — or think she’ll react badly and hold it against you — your other option is to just enforce the boundary without explicitly getting into your reasons. Be busy with work when she tries to talk to you in the office, or just be vague when she asks you about your personal life. But if she’s getting upset because she’s finding out from mutual friends that there are things going on in your life that you didn’t share with her, you may find yourself with no choice than to spell it out at some point anyway.
And for anyone who thinks they can manage a friend and still keep a close friendship: You can’t, or at least you can’t without risking some pretty major dysfunction developing. (Read this article where I explain why.)