When you work for a company from its infancy, you inevitably build personal relationships with your colleagues. As the organization grows, you may start to receive merit promotions and authority raises — and suddenly, you’re managing your friends. And that’s tough.
When you first land in a management role, it’s difficult to flex into leading people you’ve been close with, and it’s much easier to let problems slide rather than push for the hard conversations. I once had a close friend report to me who executed on everything I asked, but their team was suffering because they were much better as an individual contributor than a people manager. After some difficult talks about performance improvement, we ultimately decided that the role wasn’t a good fit.
Being the boss is hard enough, but it’s especially challenging during times of crisis. McKinsey & Co. research on business executives during the coronavirus economic downturn found that employees crave perspicacity, unbounded positivity, unwavering emotional intelligence, and effective answers from leaders.
Compound that with differentiating between your roles as boss and buddy, and the guidance and direction that comes with management becomes a more delicate act. The direct report and I had to maintain clear boundaries to maintain our friendship outside of work. These experiences have helped me discover that the only way to balance a productive work environment and close co-worker bonds is to display positive intent, honesty, and proactivity by using these strategies:
1. Embrace Radical Responsibility
Strong leaders don’t make excuses. Whether I’m late for a meeting or make a mistake on a project, I own the issue. That means I outline what my misstep was, why it happened, and how I’ll change my habits to do better. Not only does taking responsibility make me more competent at my role, but it shows my employees they can fail without being failures.
When workers believe it’s safe to take risks, even if failure’s a possibility, their engagement levels soar. McKinsey research suggests that people working at top-level companies are twice as apt to say that they feel empowered to take risks, even if those risks don’t pay off. By addressing your own mistakes in front of your employees, you create an environment where they can fail responsibly without fearing retribution or discipline. This strengthens the fabric of your company and increases innovation because ideas won’t be shelved because they’re “dumb” or “iffy.”
2. Insist on Hard Conversations
Friction points are some of the biggest growth opportunities for both you and the team. Don’t succumb to conflict avoidance; instead, lean into giving employee feedback or receiving criticism through radical candor. Learning to take feedback humbly makes you more aware of your weaknesses, which teaches you patience, empathy, and the assumption of positive intent.
Stop worrying that your employees won’t welcome the chance to give or receive feedback. More than 8 in 10 workers say they want feedback, including constructive criticism. When you normalize exchanging feedback, you set the stage for clearer understanding among workers and between employees and their bosses. Many executives get very little feedback, but they can’t grow if they aren’t objectively and regularly critiqued. At our business, we value feedback from all angles, which helps solidify C-suite discernment and decrease knee-jerk reactions to constructive concerns.
3. Embrace Confidence Builders
Rising through the ranks has meant that now I frequently run companywide meetings, which have required me to build agility and confidence. We take questions at the end of the meetings, and people don’t hold back, sometimes asking hard-hitting questions about diversity and inclusion or compensation. I used to prep my answers to every question I thought staff might ask. I was so nervous that I even rehearsed answers, which resulted in feedback that I sounded inauthentic or “scripted.”
When I realized I wanted to improve my confidence, public speaking, intuition trusting, and decision-making, I jumped into improv workshops. Improv teaches listening and responding on the fly — and getting comfortable with the risk of looking silly. Acting skills like these can complement and bolster leaders’ skill sets, which is why plenty of business schools offer improv classes or encourage their students to take them. Improv has helped me calm down, actively listen to the questions I receive, stay in the moment with each person, pay full attention to their questions, and answer authentically and extemporaneously — no more pre-planning. Boosting my confidence through improv has helped me enhance my willingness to adapt to new and changing situations and to embrace the companywide Q&As I used to hate.
For me, rising to management meant learning to care deeply while prioritizing my time and attention judiciously.No one gives you a guide when you reach manager status, but you can map out a successful path — and maintain strong relationships with your colleagues.