This is a question I have consistently wrestled with since I first became a manager.
I have gone from answering it with a yes, to a no, then a yes.
However, if you are like me and spend most of your non-sleeping time at work, working, or thinking about work-related stuff, then the thought of not having some semblance of social bonding at work is a bit bleak. My work is my recreation, and so it also comprises a large part of my social circle.
Therefore the question really isn’t can you be friends at work, but instead how do you be friends at work?
Why is this even a question?
In the beginning it wasn’t. When I was first promoted, I was managing my former peers. This was less of a challenge because several of them had been my mentors prior to my new role, so we already had relationships before I became their manager.
It was easy to be friends with them; they were the ones who showed me the ropes when I started, and comprised my entire social circle (I had moved 2 states away and the only people I knew were the ones at work). Thankfully, they were all hard workers with longer tenures, so there wasn’t any sort of stickiness or issues with reviews, raises, and the like.
My next role wasn’t nearly as easy. I was brought in from the outside and was new to the team. I had something to prove, but so did they, since I was told it was my task to clean things up. I needed to assess who was doing a good job, who was on the chopping block, and who just needed a kick in the pants. And this made me feel guarded. I wanted to be objective, and at the same time, I lacked the confidence and experience to navigate my professional world and its social dynamics smoothly.
Being friends with someone, while also being an authority or a “boss”, has all kinds of challenges that make these relationships a bit more challenging to navigate. Here were some of reasons that made me wary:
- You don’t want to have a bias (or appear to have a bias to other team members).
- Praise doesn’t mean as much coming from you.
- If you know them well enough that the real reasons behind why they miss a deadline or “call in sick” are evident, and not necessarily something a boss would know (i.e. too much partying over the weekend with your mutual friends).
- You feel competitive with one another
- They expect you to do help them, promote them, or listen to them over others because of your relationship.
Of course, each of these reasons can be handled. And in fact, most of them are not even issues if you are a great leader and know how to handle them with grace.
Being friends at work.
The thing about being friends is that it starts with you. You have to get a handle on yourself, your insecurities, and your own behaviors. Every time I struggled being friends with people at work, it had nothing to do with them, and nearly everything to do with me.
In my second role (that I described above), I was incapable of being friends with my teammates initially. I was new, and I wanted to be perceived as professional. I was sensitive that I looked young, and that I was inexperienced as a manager. I wanted to project the image of someone who had it together, and my preoccupation with others’ perception of me made it nearly impossible for me to have authentic social relationships with people. You can’t have an authentic relationship with others, if you aren’t being authentic yourself.
Work hard, do your best, and be patient.
In retrospect, I was delusional. No one expected me to be perfect. No one needed me to prove anything. I earned credibility over time. As people saw me work, they knew I was technical.
People admire hard work and smarts, but not when you brag or try to demonstrate it. You just need a bit of patience for the opportunities to shine. And if you do your best, admit what you don’t know, and be willing to put in the time with a good attitude, people will see your value on their own.
Share a bit about yourself.
As I took on new roles and gained more hands-on experience, I started getting comfortable with myself. Sometimes managers or leaders try to appear infallible, but I learned to be honest with my teammates. I would start all my relationships with a statement like:
“I want to do well at my job, and be the best manager I can be. However, I am human so I will make mistakes despite my best efforts. All I ask is that you let me know and give me the chance to fix it, and in return I will do the same.”
People may not believe you initially, but if you accept feedback well and really do try to do your best they will eventually believe in your words.
And don’t be afraid to be you. People are going to judge you whether you like it or not. At least if you are yourself then they can make their judgment with accurate information, instead of skewed, or misinformed, perceptions.
Get to know the real them.
Do you know the names of your coworkers’ spouse and children? Do you ask about them?
How about their hobbies? What do they do on the weekends?
And do you know what they really want to do? What they would do if money was no object, and how this job fits into their grand master plan?
Learning what makes someone tick, and what drives him or her can help you do your job better. Knowing what is important to them makes you more aware. And awareness means you can surface more opportunities (like a conference or project) or even information (an article you came across, for example) that can help them towards their goals.
You can be friends with someone and still make the tough calls. The fact that you care about them will make feedback easier to swallow; if they know you are trying to help them succeed they will be a lot more willing to heed your guidance. You aren’t working with employees; you are working with people.
Knowing people for who they are, and supporting them in their authentic selves, actually will help you be a better leader.
It can be intimidating, or even scary, to tell your boss that you don’t want to move up the ladder at your company – that you really want to make enough money to quit and open up that nonprofit for helpless puppies. And while people may never be entirely transparent, you can offer them a view into your own dreams and goals, so that they can begin to share theirs with you. Once you know what they aspire to, you can focus on the areas of their current role that fit into their long-term plan.
Ask them questions and be a good listener.
- What skills do they want to build?
- What are they passionate about?
- Looking forward 5 years what do they want to have accomplished?
Helpless puppies need not weigh in on any promotions, raises, or opportunities now.
And be great at keeping secrets.
Trust is key to good relationships at work, and the surest way to lose trust is to say something to someone that you weren’t supposed to repeat. So if you aren’t sure, stay mum. Office gossip can be tempting, it’s true; but rarely anything good can come of it.
If someone is complaining to you, lend an ear, but don’t commiserate. Try to be the optimist, balance both sides of the story and share your thoughts on how to make things better. Don’t sit silent (which can be seen as agreement, or dishonesty if you happen to disagree later in another forum), but instead try to be a good friend, listen, and then focus on solutions.
Be direct, and say what you mean.
My therapist once told me that relationships succeed or fail based on expectations. And at work, you would be amazed about the expectations that exist and aren’t clear. The first thing you need to do is make sure that you are clear about what you want, what you expect, and how you feel about things.
Once you have yourself under control, then you need to master direct, authentic communication, and your work relationships will flourish.
Try slowing down your speech, thinking about what you want to say, and being as direct and clear as you can. Be wiling to talk through misunderstandings and apologize when you make mistakes (because you likely will make them!).
Being the first one to take ownership and responsibility (even if it isn’t entirely your fault) is the best way to keep things on a good, even footing between both people. And no matter how rocky a project is, or a situation becomes, focus on the long term. You will remember your friends much longer than you will your projects.
Navigating office relationships can be challenging – but if you love your work and work with smarty pants people, you could be missing out on some great friendships if you can’t figure out how to make these things work.
If you have others tips or ideas, definitely leave them in the comments. I am sure there are lots of stories, experiences, and lessons worth sharing.