Manager or Friend?

We coach, develop and work alongside leaders and teams to shift ideas on leadership and provide the skills and tools needed to grow teams.


Author: Phil Hartwick
First Published: 2021

Have you ever experienced a situation where your manager or team leader is particularly friendly with another member of their team?  How does that make you feel?

Or maybe you are someone that has a good friendship with your manager and occasionally socialise with them. What difference does that make?

Could this be a problem? After all, we want managers and team leaders to be real people and not, just because of a title and role change, to assume an elevated status that changes ego, attitude towards others, or adversely impacts relationships with their people.

Let’s consider a scenario that often results in this dilemma:

A team member is promoted to then lead the team they were recently a member of.

When a promotion is given to a member of the team to lead that team, invariably this new team leader has history with the other members of the team.

The team leader may have a close friendship with one or two members of the team and they may even socialise outside of work together. And there can be other members of the team that the new team leader has had a few clashes with, or who may even have applied for the team leader role.

There are at least four perspectives and questions each might ask in this type of situation:

1. The new team leader perspective.  Why should my title and role change who I am, and in turn who I can be friends with? Why can’t I carry on socialising with the people I know and like? And with people I clash with, just because I am their leader doesn’t mean I have to like them, does it?

2. The close friend(s) of the leader perspective.  Why can’t I carry on being friends and socialising with the leader? After all they are still the same person and my relationship with her is one of the reasons I enjoy my job and working here. And it can’t hurt can it – that is, being friends with the ‘boss’?

3. The perspective of the clasher in the team. Now that this person is my team leader, how should I act given we’ve had a history of not seeing eye to eye? Will this affect my enjoyment of my job, or the potential for being offered opportunities to learn or advance? I shouldn’t suddenly be expected to change just because they are the new team leader. And will they hold it against me that I also applied for the role?

4. The rest of the team. Now that this person is the new team leader, how do we see their relationships with their ‘friends’ and those they don’t get on so well with? Will this affect their decisions and impact how they treat them, and how they treat the rest of us? Don’t we expect our team leader to treat us all the same; fairly and without any historic bias?

But if the team’s leader doesn’t adapt as to how they interact with the team, it often does create issues.  For example we’ve seen or heard where:

  • The friend of the leader wants to maintain a close social relationship

    As part of this social relationship they may also want to talk ‘work stuff’ as they have always done. They may expect the team’s leader to continue to discuss and share perspectives about other members of the team.  Of course, this gives them an ‘inside scoop’ and might also mean that they can influence the team’s leader thinking in ways that others can’t. And this may end up violating confidences, and more importantly reducing the trust others have in the leader.

  • The team leader may find it more difficult to address behaviour or performance

    Issues that may arise with ‘friends’ who they now manage may be more difficult to confront. And the team leader may appear to others to have different expectations for friends while seeming less forgiving to those they have had clashes with. People can quickly perceive this to be favouritism and again leading to a loss of trust in the leader.

Once you assume the mantle of people or team leader, you can expect that the people that report to you will expect you to treat them:

  • Fairly and equitably

  • Maintaining confidences and showing discretion about what you share about others

  • Keeping everyone equally informed

  • Expecting everyone adhere to the same standards of behaviour and workload

Of course it is desirable to lead your team members in a friendly way, but you must also be aware of the downsides of trying to maintain close personal friendships with team members.

As a leader of the team you will need to think what you will do with close social or personal relationships.  Otherwise, it may be difficult to expect others to perceive you to be  fair, unbiased and trustworthy.

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