Who Am I, Boss or Friend?

This is a huge issue, particularly at the supervisory level and especially when someone is pulled out of the work group and promoted to supervisor. It becomes confusing for all concerned, the new boss and the staff. How to act? What to expect from one another? Can we still be friends? How to set new boundaries? These questions reflect the confusion and uncertainty that typically ensues.

At the front line, people have less experience dealing with the subtleties of human relations in an organization. Not surprisingly, the promoted individual tries to keep it the same as before. Listen to our new supervisor:

“These employees have been my friends for ages. I’ve laughed, played, drunk, and shared personal problems with them. I know many of their families, personally. They are still my friends even though I’m their supervisor. I mean, none of us have changed. We’re all still the human beings we were before I received this promotion, no?”


While, yes, he/she is the same person and so are they, the situation has changed and the relationship must too. In their new book, Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, Linda Hill and Kent Lineback lay out four critical ways the boss/employee relationship differs from a purely friendship one:

  • Friendship is an end in itself. At work, however, the end is accomplishing work. If getting the job done conflicts with the relationship, the work must come first.
  • Friends are equals and treat one another as such, while the boss carries more authority (and status, for that matter).
  • Friends accept each other unconditionally. Managers assess their staff and press them to get better in their job and improve their skills.
  • Friends (at least the trusting ones) don’t check up on each other. Bosses expect progress reports and follow up on work done by their staff.

If you find yourself tempted to reach out to your employees as friends, don’t go there. It is a minefield and you will surely step on a mine, sooner rather than later. That said, do of course treat your staff as fellow human beings, deserving of respect, concern for their welfare, and support in their job and career success.

Just don’t buddy up.

© 2011 – 2016, Ian Cook. All rights reserved.

Ian Cook About Ian Cook

Ian Cook, presenter and consultant, works with managers who want to increase their effectiveness as a leader and build a stronger team. To book Ian for a training seminar, team facilitation or keynote presentation, call toll-free at: 1-888-FULCRUM (385-2786) or e-mail: ian@888fulcrum.com. For more articles and book reviews of interest to managers please go to: www.888fulcrum.com.