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Crucial Conversations QA

Keeping a Work Friendship Alive

Dear Crucial Skills,

My department is in the midst of reorganization. While I am trying to remain positive, the change I am having the most difficulty with is my friend and coworker becoming my manager. We had an open and honest conversation about how we don’t want this to affect our friendship, but I can already see the dynamics of our relationship changing. I realize she has obligations as a manager, but how can I embrace her promotion as well as handle my emotions through this change?

Sincerely,
Concerned

Dear Concerned,

Thanks for asking an important question. Working with people who are close friends can be an important source of joy and satisfaction. However, it can also create awkward and uncomfortable situations, as you’ve explained. I’ll suggest some ways to maintain your friendship despite changes in your professional roles.

Anticipate changes and master your stories. Your friend’s promotion will create real changes in your relationship, but these changes don’t need to undercut your friendship. The key to maintaining your friendship is to anticipate these changes, and to master the stories you tell yourself when you see them. I’ve outlined four friendship norms below that are likely to be altered, and have suggested positive ways to interpret them.

Reciprocity: There is a norm that friends exchange favors and requests, in a way that evens out over the long run. Friends who ask too much undermine the friendship. But now your friend isn’t just your friend; she’s your manager. As a manager she will be making more requests of you, driving the normal reciprocity out of whack. As long as you anticipate and understand this change in balance, it doesn’t have to undermine your friendship.

Watch out for the following story: “She is really testing our relationship. All she does is make demands.” Interrogate this story by asking, “Is she asking me to do a favor for her as a friend, or is this a request she’s making as my manager?”

Time: There is a norm that friends spend time together. Your friend’s promotion will make that more difficult. There is a branch of researchers who track people at work the way field biologists track animals they are studying. One of this group’s most common findings is that supervisors and managers work a lot more hours each week than nonsupervisory personnel. Your friend will have less time to socialize than before.

Watch out for the following story: “She is ignoring me. She never calls.” Interrogate this story by asking, “Is she ignoring me, or is she just a lot busier than before?”

People: There is a norm that friends put friends first. They give preferential treatment to each other. Obviously, your friend now has to avoid any favoritism at work. She will have to treat you the same way she treats the others on your team—at least during work hours.

Watch out for the following story: “She likes them better.” Interrogate this story by asking, “Is this the kind of situation where she needs to avoid the appearance of favoritism?”

Priorities: There is a norm that friends put each other’s priorities first. Again, this is an area where your friend has to be careful. If she puts your priorities first, she will be guilty of cronyism.

Watch out for the following story: “She won’t listen to me. She doesn’t care about me.” Interrogate this story by asking, “Is she responding to her boss’s priorities? Is she trying to balance several people’s priorities?”

Take initiative. Don’t wait for your friend to take the first step. She might be too busy or too unsure. Invite her to join you after work or on weekends, when it won’t look like favoritism. Don’t ask for too much time; remember she is busier than ever before. And don’t expect her to initiate as much as she has in the past; her role will make that more difficult for her. The key is to remember that these changes are due to her new job, and not to changes in your friendship.

Speak up. When you have a concern, don’t hold it inside or let it fester. Share your concerns, and keep your dialogue timely, frank, and friendly.

Facts: Start with the facts, “I expected _________, and I observed ___________.” For example, “I expected to see you at our usual place after work. I waited an hour, but never saw you.”

Tentatively share your story: Usually, it won’t be the facts themselves, but the conclusions or story you’ve told yourself that will be your main concern. Explain your concern, but keep it tentative. Remember, you could be wrong. “I’m wondering whether you’re wanting to stop our usual date.”

Ask for her point of view: Give your friend a chance to respond. Remember to make it safe for her. Give her the benefit of the doubt whenever you can. She’s under a lot of pressure, and needs you to be her friend now more than ever. “I’ll understand either way. I want to give you the support you need, and be a good friend.”

I hope these ideas can help you keep your friendship alive. We all need all the friends we can get!

Sincerely,
David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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7 thoughts on “Keeping a Work Friendship Alive”

  1. Good comments here. Thank you. Many years ago I left a job to go work for a former colleague at a large corporation. It was very difficult. Although I work 60 to 70 hours a week, easily 15 to 20 hours more than anyone else but him in the department he never could cut me any slack. For example, once a month I had to drive to pick up my daughters for a weekend with me. It was a six-hour round-trip drive, but he couldn’t see letting me leave at lunch on those days because it would look like favoritism. The end result was that a year later my old job asked for me to come back and I gladly left.

    When I spoke with his supervisor about why I was leaving. They said he they would pass him over on promotion not because of what I said because but because he pushed people too hard. That was really something to hear in a company that has a very definite reputation for pushing their employees to the max.

  2. HI David,

    Good read.
    Would like to know your thought for a reverse situation.
    Thoughts for the supervisor/manager.
    Appreciate if you could share that too.

  3. On the other end of this spectrum is having a manager/friend bring you onto their team; there is a level of not wanting to disappoint or let them down. You end up going that extra mile and extending yourself which is not a negative. However you need to keep that open and honest exchange going and show mutual respect for each other and the positions you each hold.

  4. Very helpful and easy to relate to these situations. I would also like to hear your advise with the reverse situation as well.

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