Can a Manager and Employees Be Friends?

Oct 22, 2013
5 Min Read

A reader asks: 

With my new job of four months, I've made the crossover from staff to management; I now manage a team of seven.

For the first time ever, people aren't trying to reach out and be social with me and I can't decide if they don't like me or if it's part of being in management. The staff all get along; they go out to lunch together, go to happy hour after work, go on breaks together, even do a few things outside of work, but no one has invited me to do any of it.  Is this just my new reality and I can only be friends with other managers now?  Nobody ever told me any of this, so maybe it really is just me?

It’s not you; it’s your position.

You can’t be friends with the people you manage – at least not in the true sense of the word. You can have warm, friendly relationships with them, but you cannot be friends with them the way you could if you weren’t their manager.

This is part of the package that comes with management, and the sooner that you accept it, the sooner you’ll be a more effective manager. Managers who try to be friends with their staff run into all sorts of problems. First and foremost, attempting to ignore that professional boundary doesn’t change the fact that you in are in a position of power over them. Your job is to judge their work and make decisions that could affect their livelihoods, so you are inherently on unequal footing. You need to be objective enough that you can honestly evaluate their work, give direct feedback, and even potentially fire someone one day. You might think that you can do that while still being friends, but you probably can’t, despite your best intentions – and even if you really can, others won’t believe you can, so you’ll still be dealing with a perception problem.

What’s more, it’s no fun to be on your employees’ side of that equation.  Think about it from their perspective: Their job is at least partially to satisfy your expectations, anticipate what you want from them, and at times subvert what they want in favor of what you want. That’s usually not a problem in a manager-employee relationship, but it doesn’t make for a healthy friendship. And who wants to receive critical work-related feedback from someone they were having drinks with last night and dishing about their relationship troubles?

Part of being a manager is understanding where and how to draw professional boundaries, and how to be friendly without crossing those lines – and not taking it personally if you’re not invited to group happy hours and so forth. To be clear, you can and should care about your employees as people, want the best for them, and develop warm and supportive relationships, but you also need to preserve the boundaries that make it possible for you to be effective at your job and doesn’t lead you or them into seeing the relationship as something it can’t be as long as you’re in a position of such authority over them.

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