Can I Be Your Friend and Your Boss?

I really like one of the women I supervise, and we have become friends. We’ve started socializing outside of work, and I really enjoy her company. Lately she has been coming in late and leaving early. I feel she is taking advantage of our friendship, but it is awkward for me. I don’t know what to say or how to say it. I am really uncomfortable with confrontation, and I don’t want to damage our friendship. What should I do? Gladys needs to learn to handle two challenges in this situation: (1) dealing with conflict or confrontation and (2) eliminating boundary confusion to have healthy relationships with coworkers as both a boss and a friend. Women in my research and my women clients frequently report these as common challenges.

Avoiding Conflict

Paula, a nurse who participated in my research on women’s relationships in the workplace, sums up the theme of avoiding conflict with friends as follows, “We weren’t raised that way [to be direct and confrontational]. We were told that women didn’t do that … you were to be seen and not heard.” “Seen and not heard”—I remember being told this when I was growing up. I thought I had to avoid confrontation because it could damage a relationship and was not “nice.” But I eventually realized that damage to the relationship was much more likely to occur by avoiding conflict and not dealing directly with differences. By letting bad feelings pile up, I was creating distance and mixed messages. Dealing directly with misunderstandings or hurt feelings and clearing them up actually makes relationships stronger. Many of us don’t have the skills to be direct, but excellent resources are available for learning these skills.

Boundary Confusion

Boundary confusion grows out of one of our strengths as women—we are often comfortable with having fluid boundaries and developing friendships with bosses and colleagues at work. Scholars agree that women tend to emphasize the fluid nature of the boundaries between personal life and work life. But fluid boundaries can also cause confusion. Scholars, and about 25 percent of the women in my research, propose that women bosses learn to distinguish between being friends and being friendly with other women at work. I would go a step further and say that this does not need to be an either/or option. We can be both friends and friendly as the boss, but we need to be able to name our role—boss or friend—in any given interaction. We also need to have a clear understanding of how the relational expectations differ for these two roles.

Use a Tool Called Role Hats

Gladys can be the boss of her friend, and they can be friends outside of work. I say “outside of work” because it is important that Gladys’s other direct reports not see her showing favoritism in the work environment toward her friend. The key is for Gladys and her friend to learn how to discuss and negotiate their roles and relationship boundaries. Sharon, the CEO of a healthcare services organization, describes a useful tool called role hats: To be friends at work requires total transparency. I explicitly name the role that I’m coming from—boss or friend. And we are always clear about how the hats work—what I can and cannot talk about when I have my boss hat on and how I see my responsibilities. We can also be friends outside of work as long as we stay clear about our hats. The key, then, is to be explicit about your expectations. Gladys can let her friend know that as the boss she is responsible for managing the workload and morale of her department. Accordingly, her friend cannot come in late and leave early. Here are some steps she (and you) can take to clarify role boundaries at work:
  1. Start by sharing your desire to maintain your friendship and have a good work relationship as well.
  2. Name all the functional roles involved in the relationship, such as boss, friend, or colleague.
  3. Discuss each person’s needs in each role, and really listen to each other.
  4. Exchange suggestions for behaviors that could meet each person’s needs in each role.
  5. Establish ground rules for how you will alert each other to your use of a role hat, such as:
    1. Ask me which hat I’m wearing.
    2. Ask me to change hats any time, and I will tell you if I can and why (or why not).
Good relationships, both inside of work and outside, are important for our well-being, satisfaction, and success. Keeping them strong and healthy takes some effort, but it’s worth it!]]>

1 thought on “Can I Be Your Friend and Your Boss?”

  1. Anne:
    My friend an colleague, Penny Potter send to me this link. Very important boundary stuff. BTW, I can’t recall if I’ve met you before. I’m a long time grad of the AU/NTL MSOD Program.
    Many years ago I developed a workshop that helps people set better boundaries. I’ve facilitated the session in many federal agencies and I do a lot around boundaries as a part of my executive coaching practice. I’ve also written a boundaries handbook that I’d be happy to share with you. Just let me know if you’d like one.


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