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Merge Gupta-Sunderji is a speaker and author who has more than 17 years of experience as a front-line leader in Corporate Canada.
Merge Gupta-Sunderji is a speaker and author who has more than 17 years of experience as a front-line leader in Corporate Canada.

LEADERSHIP LAB

How to be the boss when your co-workers are your friends Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today with Globe Careers and on their social media accounts. There will be a new column every weekday. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

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Feeling awkward because a workplace promotion just put you in charge of people who were previously your peers – and friends? Dealing with this situation is not as difficult as you might think. Having to supervise friends occurs far more often than most people realize, and there are specific actions that you can take to lessen the discomfort.

1. Have the conversation

Make it a point to have an individual conversation with each of your employees who was previously a peer. Don’t assume (or hope) that the uneasiness will magically disappear, because it won’t. In fact, if you don’t address the issue directly, it will probably get worse. Remember, if you’re feeling awkward about the change in workplace roles, you can bet your friends are, too. And their now subordinate positions mean that they are much less likely to bring it up than you are. But what should you say?

2. Acknowledge the discomfort

Start with the obvious. Say “I realize that since I’ve become a supervisor, our relationship has changed.” Or “Things have become a little awkward since I became the team leader.” It doesn’t matter what your exact words are; what is important is that you get the dialogue going.

3. Admit uncertainty

Recognize that this awkwardness creates uncertainty, at least for you. Try “Are you noticing a change as well?” or “I don’t know what this means for our friendship going forward.” Make the words fit your usual style so that it feels natural for you. The key is that you acknowledge your vulnerability. Like it or not, the moment you became supervisor, your relationships with those who were previously your peers altered, and showing that you’re open to talking about this change is a giant step towards a better “new normal.”

4. Clarify the difference between obligations and feelings

Somewhere in your exchange, it’s essential for you to highlight that there is a difference between your work obligations and your personal feelings. The key message: “There will be times when my work responsibilities will require me to make decisions that don’t necessarily reflect our personal relationship.” While emphasizing this reality up front won’t fully eliminate the inevitable road bumps in your relationship, it will, at least to some degree, smooth the journey.

5. Ask for the employee’s support

Close your conversation by asking for or assuming your staff member’s support. Say “I’m so glad that I can count on you to keep our work and personal relationships separate.” Don’t underestimate the shift in power balance that occurred when you became the supervisor; at minimum, it created doubt and insecurity for your friends, elements that can fracture the foundation of any relationship. So when you involve them by asking for their support, you’re sending a very powerful message – that you still value their friendship and their commitment.

6. Accept that others will perceive favouritism

When you get promoted from within your team, it’s not unusual to have some employees view another team member as the “boss’s pet.” Unfortunately, no matter what you do to avoid this perception of bias, the impression of favouritism will linger. Recognize it, but don’t ignore it. Consider two tactics. First, involve the “favoured” employee. Ask “Despite the fact that we’ve agreed to separate our work and personal relationships, there are others who will still believe that you are getting preferential treatment. How do you think we should deal with this?” Second, discuss it directly with the individuals who feel that you are showing partiality. While they won’t be easy conversations, not addressing the issue will be even worse.

7. Go elsewhere to vent

In your presupervisory life, when you were frustrated about something, you likely discussed it with your friends, some of whom probably now report to you. Let me be very clear – you cannot use these employees as sounding boards any more. Whether you want to discuss a work problem, brainstorm options to deal with a crisis, or worse, vent about a frustrating issue, these are no longer your go-to people. Unless the subject relates directly to their specific work responsibilities, look elsewhere. Seek out another supervisor in your company who faces similar challenges. Or find a mentor outside your organization. Doing otherwise will not only foster negativity and lower staff morale, but also put your office friends in an uncomfortable position.

Keep these seven actions in mind, and you’ll find that being a supervisor isn’t as uncomfortable as you might have thought.

Merge Gupta-Sunderji (@mergespeaks) is a speaker and author who has more than 17 years of experience as a front-line leader in Corporate Canada. Reach her here.

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