In my opinion, moving from “friend” to “manager” is one of the hardest transitions. Not only are you making professional transitions into a new role, you are accepting a new responsibility and possibly managing others for the first time. Then, you add the social complexity of managing people who used to be your peers.
Regardless of how you got there and how they feel about it, even under the best circumstances this is a tough transition to make. I run an entire workshop about this topic and there’s so much that can (and has) been said about how to make this transition effectively.
I decided to share with you my top 3 takeaways if you are facing this transition in the present or future.
Address What Has Changed
One of the hardest things about change can be that it feels pervasive. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant talk about the concept of “3 P’s” in their book Option B. The book is technically about grief, but it also has a lot of application to any kind of difficult change.
The 3 P’s are: pervasive, permanent, and personal. How does this apply to becoming your friend’s boss? Well, to your friend turned employee, this change is going to feel very personal. It’s also easy for it to feel pervasive, because work takes up a lot of our time and mental energy.
So my first suggestion is to have an explicit conversation about this change. While addressing it may be awkward, it will always be there bubbling under the surface if you don’t address it. When you talk about it, it’s important to make sure the other person knows that’s it’s not pervasive—many aspects of their job won’t change and not all aspects of your friendly rapport will have to go away. Be explicit about what will change and what won’t.
Secondly, make sure they understand it’s not personal. Acknowledge this transition will take work from both of you, and confirm you are still excited to work with them and learn from them in your new capacity.
Set New Boundaries – Be Explicit
This follows along well with the point above about making it clear that the change isn’t pervasive. Not everything needs to change when you become the boss, but lots of things probably should change. How do you want them to communicate with you (e.g. no more texting)? What do you want to be involved in and not involved in? A prime example of a new boundary I hear all the time is that you no longer can be the person your friend complains to, especially when those complaints are about work or other colleagues. You probably want to still share some of your life outside of work, but you may pull back on this. Being explicit about what is going to be different ensures that it doesn’t feel pervasive to your employee, and it doesn’t feel personal. Not everything is changing, and the things that are changing, aren’t about them.
The single biggest mistake I see people make here is they just “hope” that their friend/employee will know what should change and adapt accordingly. I hate to break it to you, but they probably won’t. While this conversation is awkward, the only thing more awkward is having to reprimand them later on because you didn’t make your boundaries clear and they unwittingly violated them. A little awkwardness now will save you lots more pain and discomfort down the road.
Be Very Aware of “Optics”
I normally hate the word optics and the entire idea of caring too much about how “something looks.” I make an exception in this case, though, because you are likely to be under lots of scrutiny if you’re in the midst of this transition.
If you were previously friends with some of the people on your team, but not all of them, you’ll need to manage perceptions very carefully. The natural worry of anyone you weren’t close with before you took over as manager is that you will play favorites with the people who are your friends. Your friends are likely to feel like you are over-correcting, and being even harder on them than is necessary. The best solution I can offer for this is transparency.
Deciding to delegate a cool project to one person, and not someone else? Explain the reasons why, out loud, in front of everyone. Having private meetings with one person and canceling your other 1:1’s? Same thing—explain your prioritization in a business context. Once you’ve settled into your new role, this will be less important. But we are all human, and so the odds are more eyes and scrutiny will be on how you treat your friend during the first few months of this transition.
So take care to share why you’re doing what you’re doing and put yourself in the shoes of others so you don’t create misconceptions about how fairly you are treating people.