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Dilemma of the Month: Can I Still Be Friends With My New Supervisor?

Back Article Jul 9, 2021 By Suzanne Lucas

I have worked alongside my colleague Mary for more than 10 years. We’ve worked great together and become wonderful friends. Recently, Mary was promoted to the department head, supervising four other workers and me. She seems like a different person now, and I think she’s harder on me than the others, perhaps to prove that our friendship won’t affect her performance. What can I do to remedy this — and keep our friendship?

This story is part of our July 2021 Young Professionals issue. To subscribe, click here.

This is a complicated situation. Mary is right to distance herself from you, and it hurts, and I’m sorry. But if she’s going to be a good manager, you mustn’t be friends anymore. You can still be friendly with each other, but she can’t be an effective manager and have a close friend in the department. It makes things very difficult for everyone.

But right now, it’s difficult for you, and because everyone knows you were friends, she’s probably a bit harsh on you to prove to everyone else that she won’t show you any favoritism. That’s not fair either. So here are some ideas on how to improve the situation.

Ask for a Meeting

Sit down with Mary and say, “I understand that your new position means we can’t maintain the friendship like we used to, and this makes me really sad. I miss you as a friend.”

Let her respond and, hopefully, she’ll express her regret about your relationship. At that point, you can bring up that she’s harder on you than the other employees. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. 

For example, say, “I feel like you expect more from me than from the others,” rather than “You are harder on me.” It’s a subtle difference, but it can help a conversation go more smoothly. 

If she agrees that she’s a little bit harder on you than the other employees, then suggest a code word that you can use to indicate when she’s putting more pressure on you than she should. As she relaxes into her role, it should get better.

However, she will likely deny treating you differently, and the problem won’t go away. If this is Mary’s first time managing, she’s probably overwhelmed. Managing is more complicated than just doing the job, and she’s got the added burden of managing a friend.

Escalate If Needed

If your discussion with Mary doesn’t end her harsher treatment, then it’s time to talk with her boss or human resources. It’s not a good idea to go in and demand that Mary be nicer. It’s better to approach it from a “What can I do?” perspective.

For instance, “I’m really struggling with Mary now that she’s my manager. We used to be close friends, so the transition is hard. I feel like she’s tougher on me than my coworkers to prove that she isn’t showing me favoritism. Do you have any suggestions for me?”

This lets them know there’s a problem with Mary and that you will make changes if needed. It helps you look less like you are whining about the situation.

However, keep in mind that if you hope to fix the relationship with Mary, having her boss or HR come down hard on her will probably destroy that forever. If you think Mary will adjust on her own after getting used to being the boss, I’d hold off on this for as long as possible.

Get a New Job

This can seem like a drastic step, but if your relationship with Mary is essential to you, the easiest way to fix it is to no longer be her direct report. If there are opportunities within the company, transferring to a new group can be the easiest solution.

If not, looking externally can be a good thing to do as well. You’re employed now, so there’s no hurry to find something new. Start your job search now, and you’ll likely find something within the next six months and move on. Then, hopefully, you can rekindle your friendship with Mary.

Don’t Tell Mary What to Do

While it’s undoubtedly easier to insist that others change than to take action ourselves, it’s highly ineffective. Mary can’t resume her close friendship with you and be an effective supervisor. We know that much. She also needs to treat you fairly, and she’s struggling with that. If she were to ask me, I’d coach her through some things she could try, including helping you find a position on a new team internally.

Good managers need firm boundaries with their employees. People often know that romantic relationships between managers and employees are inappropriate but don’t often consider how difficult it is to navigate friendship in the office hierarchy. It can be just as tricky. 

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