Can a Manager and Employees Be Friends?

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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  • Anna E

    Boundaries are good. One of the worst managers I ever had was a hard worker and genuinely cared about her employees, but she was a boundary-crossing Michael Scott clone who tried to be best friends when her employees. She commented on her employees’ love lives, invited herself to employee happy hours, and the worst was when an employee was out on bereavement and she decided to invite herself to this employee’s home and wanted our coworkers to “take shifts” in helping the employee deal with her grief.

    • sisi sunini

      It is strange that we cannot think outside the box all the time. 2 living creatures from the same species are finding hard to get close to each other because of their signature J

  • Chris Thompson

    I agree it is a fine line and so much grey area. I has this issue firsthand with being a part of a team, then becoming the manager of that team. That was awkward. The key IMO is having and showing respect for the people you manage. We all have a job to do and letting them know your expectations. If expectations are clear and transparent upfront, and you hold them accountable, it will reduce a lot of tension and perceived favoritism.

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  • Kilberm

    I have a reversal of fortunes as a manager. I recruited a deputy to my finance team last year who is a real asset to me and is popular with her colleagues. But my already all female team is now like a closed shop to me. We used to go out for a drink at lunchtimes on birthdays and the occasional meal in the evening as a team together. I valued such times to talk with my team but now it’s a “girls night out” etc and I am excluded from all the social events etc. So my boss praises my happy and hard working to me but I feel isolated and like throwing the towel in.

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