my manager wants to be my best friend

by Ask a Manager on September 3, 2010

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.)

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{ 13 comments }

Anonymous September 3, 2010 at 6:11 pm

I really think that it is important to establish boundaries. I once had a boss who tried to be everyone's best friend but then would scream at us all the time for work related issues – typically overreacting and then I personally would get upset because thought we were friends, so why would he talk to me that way, etc? See how it gets very dysfunctional, very quickly? Avoid at all costs.

TheLabRat September 3, 2010 at 6:23 pm

I really think the fact that most people have problems working with coworkers says more about those people and their friendships than it does about some need for a rule.

TheLabRat September 3, 2010 at 6:23 pm

Arg…working with friends. Swwet jeebus I have issues today.

Ask a Manager September 3, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Hmmm… I disagree! When one friend's job is to judge the other friend, and when that friend is in a role where she may need to fire/lay off/discipline that friend, I don't think you can have a healthy friendship.

Ask a Manager September 3, 2010 at 6:37 pm

BTW Lab Rat — you and I are both fans of QueryShark! Saw you over there the other day and it was like two worlds colliding!

Jamie September 3, 2010 at 6:54 pm

I find it odd that the friend that was promoted isn't the one posing the question.

Of course the relationship changed – you can't have a truly equal relationship with someone over whom you have power.

That doesn't mean it can't be friendly and pleasant, just not too personal.

Chit chat about what concert you saw over the weekend is fine. Candid discussions about how you really feel about things at work would break bad on both of them.

It might be different if it was a long standing friendship that predated the job, that's hard to undo overnight. But while I have some coworkers I am chattier with then others I never tell anyone at work anything I wouldn't want sent out in an all users email.

GeekChic September 3, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Well… I have to disagree with you for once. I had several good friendships with people I supervised (when I used to supervise) and I am now friends with one of my managers.

How does it work? We're not friends in the office. Maybe some people can't compartmentalize that way – but I have had no trouble doing so and neither have my friends (either of the boss or subordinate variety).

I don't hear about things now that I shouldn't and I have been disciplined by my friend before. It's not personal – it's just business. That said, I tend to be unusually blunt with all of my friends and they are with me – so maybe that's why too.

Anonymous September 3, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Provided the employee and manager who are friends have a mature attitude and maintain mutual respect, there shouldn't be a problem with their friendship.

I used to work for my dad, and he and I instictivle knew the boundaries in our work relationship. (On the other hand, I had problems with jealous co-workers, since I was the boss's daughter.)

Anonymous September 3, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Sorry for the typo; it should have bee "instinctively", of course.

clobbered September 3, 2010 at 9:08 pm

I think this is the first time I have ever disagreed with AskAManager. I used to work in a place where friendships in the workplace were the norm/inevitable (remote outpost) across the organogram. I personally was my spouse's manager for a while.

It can actually work without any dramas. No, really. Mature people can actually set effective boundaries. Also, there seems to be an underlying assumption that the manager will go "easy" on you because you are his friend – in my experience that depends on the individuals involved (if anything, I am harder on my friends).

There are actually significant advantages in this scenario too – for example picking up on the fact that somebody is unhappy with their job because of social knowledge that would be unavailable in a more compartmentalised setting. Also, it is easier to be direct with someone who knows you are not their enemy – for example saying "gee, I think Joe in accounting was offended by your e-mail, did you intend the implication that Accounting are sloppy, because I don't think you did knowing you. Maybe you could clear it up?" is a lot easier to say if the recipient is not going to get defensive in a my-boss-is-being-critical kind of context.

The difficulty in this post is that one of the two people *is* uncomfortable in the situation for whatever reason, and their signals are NOT being picked up by the other. The problem is not in the situation, it is in the differing expectations.

I should say that in situations where I have seen this work, people were not what I would call young. Perhaps knowing what your boss/employee got up to in the weekend is not an issue for us boring old people because we just did the laundry and took the kids to the park :-)

Anonymous September 4, 2010 at 3:01 am

I agree with the comment above, that it's odd that the manager wasn't the one writing to AAM. Frankly it doesn't speak well of her capabilities as a manager if she doesn't already know why their friendship can't continue unchanged. It shouldn't be the junior person that has to explain it to them.

I do think it is possible for some people to remain friends with their managers. both sides have to b able to compartmentalize. Both sides have to understand that a judgement of someone's work performance isn't a judgement of them as a friend. But it is a rare quality to find.

Anonymous September 5, 2010 at 2:14 am

Hello all, thank you so much for all your advices, especially AskAManager! First of all, I have already been straight forward with her and talked about the problems on many many occasions. I know by now I can expect two reactions. She will either get really defensive and offended that I am ungrateful to her friendship, or she will admit to the problem and apologized and be professional for a week or two before we are back to square one. She likes to say old habit dies hard.
I would like to clarify my problem a little bit more. I have been working for this manager for over two years now. The main reason I am not comfortable that her being my close friend and knows what is going in my life is because she has no separation between her work and personal life and she would like me to be the same. She likes to talk about work while we are not working and talk about personal stuffs at work while we are working. This may not be a problems to some people but it bother me a lot. I want my weekends to be free of works and boss and work to be free of my personal problems.
So I have been using route #2, which is ignoring her and not give in. But it sure make my job really awkward and painful. And I used to love my job. I am looking elsewhere and had one pretty promising interview already.
You might be wondering why I still think she's a good manager? Well, aside from me, everyone else in my department is new hires and she is doing a very good jobs managing and getting things done, at least that what I think.
So those of you who successfully work with your friend as your boss or vice versa, you are so lucky! I really hope that I can be friend with her again after I move on from this job. We shall see. And writing all of these out has been helping me seeing things straight and deciding what to do next. Thank you. I think all the managers should visit this site and learn from it, especially mine!

iris n. October 5, 2010 at 8:08 am

I also think its very important to establish professional boundaries between a manager and employee. In the case that a manager was formerly a good friend, it may be quite difficult to establish these boundaries, but it is definitely in the interest of both parties.

The manager herself, because she is the manager, should be trying to distance herself instead of trying to keep the previous friendship. Even if she has her favorites, it will not be in the best interest of the organization, if the other employees feel that a certain individual is getting more "attention" just because that individual and the manager are "best friends." It might be harmful to the employee to be seen in such a light. Additionally, now that her best friend is her boss, she has to be careful of what she discusses with her "boss/friend." Anything she says may be used against her in the future, because the boss ultimately has the power to fire her.

Yes, its probably possible for two individuals, in a "boss" and "employee" relationship to have a perfectly healthy relationships. However, both sides must clearly know their professional boundaries and personal boundaries and set rules on what issues stay where. If both of them are able to clearly do that, by ensure that personal talk remain personal and that it will have no impact on the "professional" decisions that the boss makes, then it should work out. However, if the relationship continues without any sort of boundaries and understandings, then the professional relationship, as well as their personal relationship, will most definitely not end well for both parties. So I think this is a very difficult issue to navigate… Good luck!

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