Leadership and Friendships at Work

by | Nov 29, 2021 | Business Management, Professional Growth

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names”
– Confucius

We often call our colleagues “friends” – are they really?
Accurately naming your work relationships can be challenging. The article “Friend, Foe, Ally, Adversary… or Something Else”? by Laurence J. Stybel and Maryanne Peabody carefully examined leadership relationships at work. One of their findings was compelling – “The corporate world is more suited to make enemies.” Most of us believe the opposite is true – we are surrounded by friends. The authors concluded we have few work colleagues who meet the definition of friend or enemy. Our colleagues are primarily allies.

Allies differ from our friends and enemies – they are conditional relationships. The allegiance of our allies depends on the conditions underway. If you are doing well, your allies are all in. If you lose favor, your allies can disappear. Friends and enemies are unconditional – they are always there, through good times and bad.

Friendships at work can really be tested when there is a shift in power. Imagine you finally land a coveted supervisory job and learn you will be supervising some of your former co-workers. The good news is the promotion. The bad news is some of your new direct reports you perceive to be your “friends.” One of your new direct reports is a close friend of your family – last month your families vacationed together in Mexico. Now you will be responsible for your “friend’s” performance reviews.

Your new direct report has been underperforming recently and your boss expects you to address his behavior. You schedule a visit to discuss new expectations, and job performance. As you enter the conference room for the discussion, the word that best describes the atmosphere is – awkward. You cannot give him a pass for poor performance – what do you say?

This conversation should value your past relationship, outline the new supervisor/employee partnership, and address the performance issues and a plan moving forward. This is an opportunity to strengthen your relationship, not friendship, through clarity.
Leaders have work colleagues, not buds.

My story is I misdiagnosed an important work relationship as a friendship, and the result was devastating. A senior corporate executive was scheduled to visit our field office and I had already committed to a meeting in another location. I reached out to a peer who knew this individual, and who I considered to be my friend, and he told me to not worry about the executive visit. The executive visited our office and was extremely disappointed I was not in town. He called my supervisor and observed my status as a “high potential” leader required a second look. Following a humbling meeting with my supervisor, I realized and learned from my mistake.

The lesson proved to be a blessing. Betrayed by a supposed “friend”, I realized my naivete and redefined that relationship

Three keys to effectively managing your relationships at work:

Enemy Management
Should you invest time and resource to converting enemies to allies? Experience proves this generally not worth the effort. Enemies often remain enemies. Work with enemies by identifying allies who are respected by those who make your role difficult.

Friend Management
The best advice I ever received to frame a crucial conversation with a “friend” who is now a direct report – “remind them you go way back, and now we need to go forward.” Affirm the past relationship and clarify the new journey and terms ahead. Mutual respect, not friendship, is the expected outcome.

Promote Your Allies
Our natural tendency is to advocate for our friends. The reality is our allies need us more. You have established political capital as a successful leader. Be their advocate, and they will often return the favor.

Allyship is the act of using one’s power, position, or privilege to uplift others. These conditional relationships work fine when there is trust and accountability. Your allies lift you up – return the favor.

All My Best,