Industry News

Why can’t we be friends?

Bryan Otte
December 2, 2020

Over 25 years ago, Fast Company launched with a cover story announcing that “Work is Personal.” It was true then, and it’s true today -- more so, in fact. Before the COVID pandemic, the lines between work and personal life were a blur. And now? It’s all one. But for those who rely on work for their personal relationships, I would argue that managers need to be prepared for the risks those relationships entail.

Back in the day (before minivans), people worked based on a relatively structured schedule. Employees arrived around 8:00 or 9:00 and left around 5:00 or 6:00. Employees had time for outside interests and friends, not to say that friendships (and romances) didn’t blossom in the workplace. However, now employees work longer hours, and even if not at the office, employees are tethered to the office via their phones. The impacts are varied, from increased stress to increased (or decreased?) net productivity. And with less time for outside pursuits, employees rely more on their co-workers for camaraderie and friendship. This can make work more enjoyable -- even fun. After all, we’re all in this together and we’re making a difference. But what happens when one of the “gang” gets promoted, and is now in charge of the gang? How does that work?

When someone becomes a manager, they shift from an individual contributor role to someone trying to get work done through others. And the new manager has an entirely new network to navigate as well. To succeed in this endeavor is impossible without some self-awareness. A new manager needs to understand her role, how she’s viewed, and what strengths and areas for improvement she brings to the job. HR practitioners often do a good job supporting new managers, be it, for example, with testing and feedback to determine how best to communicate with others or, say, establishing mentorship opportunities. 

However, one area we tend to overlook is the very personal: How to support a new manager tasked with managing people who were, until very recently, contemporaries. The first hints of problems in this regard are when managers have trouble holding their charges responsible for their work -- avoiding the need to deliver constructive feedback and, perhaps, corrective action. Unfortunately, these hints don’t appear for many months (if not longer), and by then time is wasted and the new manager is frustrated.  It’s understandable. The manager feels uncomfortable managing her “friends.” They want to maintain the friendships as they were. But roles have changed. And HR often doesn’t want to get involved because HR doesn’t want to get in the middle of “personal” relationships. I had a client where the manager insisted on a personal relationship with a subordinate outside the office. Sure enough, relationship tensions crept into the office environment and destroyed the professional relationship. Manager and employee had to be separated, at a great cost to the company and their careers. HR shouldn’t have been surprised. But what can HR do? Here are three places to start.

Get out ahead of it

First, HR should not be surprised when these kinds of issues come up. In other words, HR business partners should be just that. Not just executing HR requests for their clients but understanding their clients’ business and the social structures that undergird it. So when a new manager gets training, the curriculum should include a dose of interpersonal relationship risks. For example, it might be how to manage more experienced managers who still treat you as if you are in your former role. The common theme is that when promotions occur, relationships change.

Set expectations

The second thing HR should do is set expectations for what the manager might expect. The “friends” may still see the new manager as one of them, or the friends may be resentful of the new manager. Perhaps none of this will come to pass, but my experience suggests a rocky transition is possible. If the manager has reasonable expectations, we can work together to set the table ahead of time for success. 

Conduct regular check-ins

Finally, HR needs to hold consistent check-ins with the new manager to uncover any brewing problems. We simply can’t toss a new manager into the deep end and hope they figure it out. HR’s job is to ensure the new manager has all the tools to succeed. As we do this, managers see that investing in people pays off -- for teams and the business.

So, yes, we can be friends. Let’s just make sure we recognize how that friendship may change over time.

Bryan Otte is founder and CEO of HRPlus Group, a human resource consultancy based in Washington DC. 

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