Can the Boss Be a Friend?

It is a common question among newly promoted news leaders: Will my old friends still be my friends, now that I supervise them?

Here’s the answer: It depends.

It depends first and foremost on the foundation of each friendship. If your bond consisted largely of hoisting a few cold ones after work and moaning about the morons in newsroom management, you’ll have little common ground for carrying that relationship forward. But, if your connection to that person was built on positive shared values, you’ll find ways to build on it, when you're the boss.

Bosses can be friends with the people they supervise. But they must take a careful, thoughtful approach, and be aware of the possible pitfalls.

Some tips for new bosses supervising their old friends:

  • Be forthright. Ask for a mutual understanding from the start: You won’t take advantage of your friendship, and neither will they. No special treatment.

  • Be fair. Don’t let your fondness for a friend color your judgment of their work or potential. Avoid sharing disproportionate amounts of your day with your buddies. Others notice and justifiably feel slighted.

  • Be pragmatic. You need not stop playing tennis with a colleague, now that you’re the boss. But you may have to widen your circle of newsroom tennis partners to make certain staffers know that the event is purely athletic; no one scores any special newsroom points with you on the court.

  • Be sociable—to a degree. Bosses are invited to many newsroom social events. Use your discretion; where your attendance adds an amen to a celebration of good work, or cheers to an employee moving on to bigger and better things, show up. But recognize that you are never truly off duty. Your behavior at social events is part of your leadership profile. Act accordingly. One easy rule of thumb: drink less, leave earlier than the others.

  • Be sensitive. Your presence can be particularly meaningful in stressful times. When a colleague is ill or injured. When there’s a funeral or memorial service. Do this for all members of your work group, not just old friends. A concerned boss is forever remembered by people in crisis.
    Be discreet. Do not share confidential work information with old friends, no matter how much you trust them. It is unprofessional to disclose employee salaries or sicknesses, or tip your hand about business strategies.

  • Be open. One of the best gifts friends can provide bosses is candor. Encourage them to tell you when you’re making a mistake, losing focus, or ticking people off. Listen to them.
  • Be prepared. Some friendships may cool. It happens. As a friend, you never had to evaluate a buddy, assign their work schedules, determine their income level. Now you do--and it can strain a friendship.

  • Be vigilant. Always make certain you are being objective, fair and forthcoming with friends in the newsroom. Are you treating them differently than others in the workplace? Asking less of them? More?

In time, you will find that your good friendships evolve to reflect your new role as a leader. You’ll never be friends with all of you employees, but you can be friendly; positive, approachable, concerned, connected…and fair. And that’s what they want from the boss.

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    Jill Geisler

    Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist "spin." It takes exceptional leaders to build trust, along with the systems and culture that grow great journalism.


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