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One question that I notice some leaders asking is “Is it OK to be friends with your employees?”

Through my coaching and training work I talk to lots of leaders, and this seems to be a situation that can cause trouble if we don’t keep an eye on it.

But as usual, there are no rules for leadership and there is no rulebook to follow!

So in this post, I take a look at some of the potential challenges with being friends with your employees, and what you might try to do instead.

Why Do Leaders Become Friends With Their Employees?

One question you might ask yourself is why you want to be friends with your employees in the first place. There are lots of other people out there to be friends with, so why does this situation happen so often?

A recent Gallup survey highlights that having a best friend at work has become increasingly important. As such, I don’t think is something that should be ignored.

Having a friend at work can make it much more fun, and give you a valuable source of support when you’re going through a challenging time.

Many leaders are also in the position where they have been promoted to lead the team that they were once a part of. This means they may have built previous friendships working alongside their peers, but now they find themselves managing them!

I’ve also noticed that some leaders believe that a team who are all friends will experience less conflict.

However, it’s worth remembering that conflict is a valuable part of work. Conflict gives rise to new ideas, improvement opportunities and prevents “groupthink”.

Groupthink is the phenomenon where a group of people prioritise the group’s harmony over offering differing opinions or criticisms that could result in conflict.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #132: Would You Rather Be Liked or Respected?

The Challenges of Being Friends With Your Employees

In general, I would suggest that you shouldn’t be friends with your employees. This doesn’t mean you can’t be nice, or act in a friendly manner.

However, I also think it’s important for leaders to make that decision for themselves, and to go into the situation with their eyes wide open.

So next, I’m going to take a look at some of the common challenges of being friends with your employees. Then, I’ll consider some potential approaches to managing the situation.

Challenge #1: Difficulty in Holding People Accountable

An important part of leadership is to be able to hold people accountable. That is, to reinforce positive or negative consequences for poor behaviour or performance, or to encourage a certain standard of results.

When you’re friends with your employees, you may have a tendency to “let things go” or “look the other way”. This is because holding someone accountable can feel uncomfortable.

take responsibility accountability

Being a friend can make any constructive criticism feel like a personal attack, which can tempt us to avoid it altogether.

Unfortunately, this is likely to lead to poor outcomes in the long run, because it leads us to challenge number two.

Learn More:  Team Members Won’t Take Accountability? Consider This.

Challenge #2: Perceptions of Favouritism

If you’re friends with one of your team members, you might find yourself spending more time together. Going to lunch or having coffee for example.

Over time, this can cause tension as other team members feel that you’re favouring your friend over the rest of the team.

While this may not actually be true, perception is often reality. This can undermine your credibility as a leader, and start to erode trust in the team.


Part of this problem arises because spending time with your friend can increase their perceived status in the workplace. Spending more time with the boss can signal a higher standing amongst peers in the team.

Once you are perceived as favouring people in your team, you might find yourself having to deal with “cliques”, forming as a result of other team members bonding over your relationship with your friendly employee.

Learn More:  4 Critical Considerations for “Nice” Leaders.

Challenge #3: Greater Potential For Inappropriate Sharing of Information

When you’re friends with your team members, you’re also at risk of potentially sharing information that you probably shouldn’t.

As a leader, you’ll often have access to inside information that is only available at the management level. This might involve various goings on in the company like staff movements, issues or team restructures.

If you start to tell your friends this sort of information they could use this to their advantage, and this is a form of favouritism like in the previous point.

Whispering - test your leadership

Even if you don’t tell your employee friend this info, you might still feel tempted. This can increase stress levels as you agonise over what you will tell people, and what you won’t.

If your own boss finds out that you have shared information with lower level team members, you may also find that this can erode trust. This may lead them to withhold information from you that you could actually benefit from.

Learn More:  Struggling at Work? Try Building a Better Working Relationship With Your Boss.

Challenge #4: Lack of Credibility

The final challenge I’ll raise here is the potential for a loss of perceived credibility in your leadership skills.

Sometimes leaders need to make sacrifices and set clear boundaries so that they can remain professional and treat people fairly.

Being friends with your employees can run counter to that. You may be perceived as somebody who struggles to separate the business and personal aspects of your working life.

Some people may see a leader who is friends with employees as a risk. As somebody who may not be able to make the hard decisions, or do what they need to do to ensure the team and business is profitable and successful.

You may also be perceived as somebody who is desperate to be liked, rather than respected.

Unfortunately, this can make people think that you aren’t really “management material” which could impact your potential future promotional opportunities.

Learn More:  3 Ways to Build Your Leadership Credibility In a New Team.

What Should You Do Instead of Being Friends With Your Employees?

Some people reading this may say “I can manage it – it’s not a problem for me”. It might not be an issue right now, but it puts you at potential risk of compromising your leadership standards.

I have seen examples of, and heard several stories through my time coaching and training of usually good leaders who have displayed a lack of integrity because they are attempting to safeguard their workplace friendships.

So, what can we do instead? Well, below are some options.

You might not like them, but if you’re in a leadership role you have a responsibility to your team, your boss and your organisation – not just to your friends.

Options to Handle Workplace Friendships

The first thing to do is to limit the time you spend as friends. This might include time getting coffee, lunch or any other forums where you would have lots of one to one contact.

Socialising after work should also be limited. The situation can get even more tricky when alcohol is involved. So if your team are going to party, you should consider making an appearance, and then heading for an early exit.

Next, you may find you need to set clear boundaries about what is appropriate, and what’s not. This might include what information you can share and how you will behave towards friends in your leadership role.

Setting Boundaries at work - drawing circle

This option is one to consider when you already have a friend at work, who you now lead. You might need to have a conversation to discuss the challenges posed by the friendship directly, and work out a way you can work together without experiencing issues.

It’s nice to have friends at work though, so if you must, it might be time to find friends at a different level. Perhaps in other departments and at your level of seniority.

At the end of the day, you may need to make a hard choice between your friendship and your role. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck trying to managing the challenges I mentioned earlier in the article.

It’s great to have friends, but they may just make leading even more difficult than it needs to be.

Have you had to manage being friends with your employees? How did you do it? Share your ideas with all the thoughtful leaders in the comments below!

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