There was a great promotion offered at work, it paid more, and you jumped at the opportunity. You knew that if you were the successful candidate, you would now be supervising the group of people that were your former colleagues and are your friends.
Transitioning from friend to supervisor is hard. It often puts your friendship on the back burner while your new responsibilities are on the front burner. It will put you in awkward situations where it feels like your loyalty is being questioned. It will never be easy and like parenting, you can’t always be the friend you want to be.
However, with a little strategy and planning, you can make the transition easier and more successful. You will have to put thought and effort into it because it won’t happen accidentally, and it won’t be easy. It will be worth it!
- Set Boundaries. While that sounds very basic, it isn’t easy to execute.
In 2018 I hired my long-time friend, Liz, to manage and coordinate all my travel. Liz was recently retired, not looking for a time-consuming job, and loves travel. She felt that she was having the trip herself by organizing my travel, and she loved her new part-time job.
Liz and I had been good friends for well over ten years, vacationed together with our spouses, and were in each other’s inner circle. We didn’t work together, but we were indeed good friends. When we decided that she would work for me, we needed to transition from us being equal friends to me being her supervisor.
Naturally, we had to talk about how this would look and what would happen if things didn’t work out. This wasn’t the first time I had this conversation (my husband is my EA, after all), which meant that I new what our new boundaries should look like to ensure success.
When we were together socially, we didn’t talk about my travel or what she was working on. When we were working together, we didn’t let on to clients and outsiders that we were initially friends. We agreed that the other could end the agreement, and it wouldn’t affect our friendship. We agreed that we would talk about when things weren’t working. She agreed that I was allowed to impose the dreaded “because I said so” logic that supervisors sometimes need to do. We also agreed that she wouldn’t ever discuss the financial part of the business with anyone outside the office.
Your boundaries might be different, but together we put it all on the table and agreed that if we were going to have a working relationship, it could not impact our personal relationship.
Since she started working with me, we have had a great friendship and a great working relationship. We still abide by our boundaries, and I’ve never had to say, “This is not your friend asking you to do this but your supervisor asking you to do this.”
- When you get promoted into your new role, you must meet with your friends, one-on-one or in a group. You probably weren’t the only person to apply for the job. It is possible that several of your friends also applied for it and are disappointed or angry that you were the successful candidate.
It wouldn’t be uncommon for some bitterness to impact your friendship as this promotion quickly becomes personal. You may need one-on-one discussions with those that also applied for the job to discuss it with them.
Be willing to talk about your new promotion. It is the elephant in the room. Be open with the group, be willing to put expectations on the table, and, if necessary, discuss your goals.
It is possible that you lamented about the previous supervisor as friends. If necessary, talk about how you will be different and permit them to let you know when you are doing what you used to complain about.
- You can no longer be “one of the gang” once you become a supervisor. Like my above comment on parenting, there is now a line that has been crossed. You can’t do some of the things you used to do anymore in your new role. Don’t assume you can be the supervisor and maintain the old relationship you had. You are fooling yourself if you believe this, and I can promise you that your friends won’t expect you can. They will not tell you everything (nor should they). They may talk about you amongst themselves. You will not be in the loop about everything regardless of what you do.
Friends of mine have gone through this same transition, and it was hard. Phil and Steve used to work together as colleagues, and it was common for one of them to cover the other when needed. For example, Phil wanted to go golfing but didn’t want to use a vacation day. Phil called in “sick,” and Steve would cover what needed to be done and never let on that he knew that Phil wasn’t sick at all.
The same arrangement worked in reverse. That worked well for the two of them until Steve became Phil’s supervisor.
One day Phil called in sick when Steve knew he was out golfing with friends (Facebook is often not your friend at work). Steve had to have a conversation about this practice as Phil’s supervisor. He couldn’t look the other way and pretend he didn’t know that Phil was abusing the system. He didn’t want to know when Phil went golfing on company time. Steve was in a role where he couldn’t condone the behaviour and had to deal with the situation as a supervisor and not one of the gang.
If Phil decided to skip a day at the office and use a vacation day, you can be sure he hid that information from his “friend” Steve. That irrevocably changes their friendship. Also, if Phil and Steve are at a social event, there will be some inevitable awkwardness if another friend asks how work is going with Steve as the supervisor.
- Stop complaining, gossiping, and trash talk. It is a natural behaviour to complain about the boss, and the workload, and even to share gossip with your friends. Your group did it before you were the supervisor and it will continue when you are the supervisor.
Full stop to that behaviour. Even in confidence, you cannot complain, gossip or trash talk about your new role with your old friends from work. Your need to vent will have to be done with someone else. You are crossing an ethical line and potentially sharing confidential material, but ultimately it is not professional and could be putting your new promotion and your reputation on the line.
You can expect that you will be the subject of the complaining, gossip, and trash talk among the group, though. Don’t expect that won’t continue if it was what your team did with the previous supervisor. Don’t ask anyone to tell you what is shared (that is betraying a friend’s trust), and don’t be naïve to think they will have nothing to complain about either.
- Be honest with your team. Let them know you are learning and that you expect you won’t be perfect. Ask them to tell you when you are doing something they don’t think you should do. Ask them to respect the fact that you can’t be one of the gang, that you need to act in your role as a supervisor before your role as a friend, and that you are struggling to do that. Ask them to accept there are things you can’t tell them and that the boundaries you agreed to make sense.
If they trust are friends, they will understand and support you.
This transition will be hard, and you can expect a few hurt feelings from time to time. However, ask yourself why you wanted the supervisor role and focus on your long game.
Friends come and go as our lives evolve. You will find those you can be open and candid with. You can still be friendly but realize that your new role precedes your old life. You wanted the job, so be strategic about making it work.