Lisa was the first person who greeted me when I started my new job, bounding up to me with bouncy, blonde hair and a bright red headband. Within 30 minutes, I knew we’d be friends: we were the same age, had been to the same university, shared much the same outlook on life. As time went on, we grew closer: we made each other hoot with laughter after a long day, shared clothes before parties, and texted about our private lives on weekends. Sure, work had brought us together, but it felt more like fate than happenstance.
Then, one day, I found out Lisa had got a promotion: to become my boss. My direct boss. The person I report back to and ask for pay rises from. I was genuinely delighted for her, but couldn’t help feeling it was a little weird. Would our relationship have to change? Could we still be close friends? Who would I complain about the boss with now?
Here’s what I learned about the line between friends and colleagues – with some tips on how to make the most of the relationship.
Your colleague can’t be your best friend – particularly if there’s a power dynamic.
There are so many reasons for this, sad though it may be. The first is your teammates. If your boss was obviously closest to one person — and was regularly having private lunches and drinks with them — would you really not be concerned that your co-worker had special access to your boss that you didn’t have? If that co-worker got a project that you really wanted, would you trust that she had earned it on merit, or would you suspect that the friendship with your boss played a role? If you had an issue with that co-worker, would you feel comfortable talking to your boss about it, or would you worry that your concerns wouldn’t get a fair hearing because of their relationship? I’m guessing the answer is no.
Power dynamics aren’t the best basis for a friendship.
It’s so important to have boundaries, no matter how fun and informal your (virtual) office may be. You should be able to feel a little tired one morning without stressing that your boss knows you went out the night before. You also need to be able to vent about annoyances at work without worrying you’ll offend the managers, and ask for a promotion because it’s the right thing for you – even if it might make your boss’s life harder. If it’s time to move to another company, that’s a decision that should be made without worrying about upsetting important, personal relationships. And, most of all, you need to know that if you fall out with your friend/colleague, it won’t affect you professionally.
It makes it hard for the boss, too.
Everyone thinks they can give honest feedback to friends, but try doing that when you know they’ve just gone through a breakup or their parent is ill. The dynamic between employer and employee is fraught with difficulties without also having to navigate the demands of a close friendship. Your boss will likely have to make decisions you don’t love, which may even impact your livelihood. They have to be able to do that without worrying that they’re hurting your feelings.
Being a good boss means being friendly, sympathetic and understanding – traits that are shared with good friends – but to everyone, indiscriminately. Even if favouritism isn’t at play, others may suspect it is, making relationships more difficult between everyone on the team.
Remember: it’s not all doom and gloom.
There’s a unique delight in having a close colleague. Fine, they might not come to your messy house party or turn up at your house when your boyfriend dumps you, but you can absolutely still have a respectful, enjoyable and supportive relationship – one that can become a close friendship if you change roles or one of you leaves. We spend so much of our lives at work that feeling valued and encouraged in the office is a core component of personal happiness too, and it’s important that your friend/colleagues can help you get there.