A therapist weighs in on whether or not your manager-employee friendship is actually healthy.
Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Q: Can you really be friends with your boss? Is it healthy for your relationship at work?
A: Respect and trust, the foundations of friendship, are abundantly present in healthy boss-employee relationships. These qualities can be very beneficial for boss, employee, and the workplace in general.
So yes, you can be friends with your boss. But there’s a catch.
Research shows that employees with friends at work are happier, healthier, and more engaged in their jobs. At the same time, while they perform better, they also have more conflict and more emotional strain in their professional relationships. And when the friendships go awry, productivity worsens.
Even in the closest of relationships, you will need to set boundaries. These boundaries define the depth of closeness within the relationship — and can be key in preventing the pitfalls of workplace friendship while maintaining the integrity of its value. Healthy boundaries between a boss and an employee are different than those between close personal friends.
Although healthy relationships have strong feelings of trust, confiding personal information — such as secrets, romantic, or otherwise — might not be in the best interest of both boss and employee. This is because what is shared about private matters outside of work may impact perception inside of work.
Information shared impacts how people view each other. We Homo sapiens are notorious for making quick judgments and generalizations about the other, where context isn’t always honored. Perception becomes reality. So tread carefully.
For a boss, there are other variables to consider regarding the closeness that defines the friendship with an employee. There is a risk that the team views a boss as playing favorites at work if there is an obvious special closeness shared. This may create jealousy, feelings of a lack of professionalism, and even resentment within the team dynamic.
Boundaries are different between a friend-boss and a friend-friend in the ability to say “no.” It’s likely not in one’s best interest to tell a boss that something can’t be done. In friendship, hopefully, the impact of refusal can be less potent. Friends have the ability to take time from one another when there is conflict. However, when working together, the luxury to cool things off may not be available.
Some would say that an equal meeting of the minds between people can’t really occur when there is a power differential. When someone is in a position of authority that involves formal performance evaluation and reward, financial or otherwise, the ability to be friends is compromised.
So, curious reader, friendship is a wonderful thing and its presence in workplace situations can have a positive impact. The relevant question is, how close is too close?
The answer lies in appropriately managing boundaries.
Having Work Friends can be tricky but its Worth It (Seppala & King 2017, Harvard Business Review): people with best friends at work are happier, healthier, more engaged in their jobs. In other cultures, it is not unusual to vacation with a co-worker; in America is it rather uncommon. While people with friends often “perform better” they also may have more conflict and more emotional strain in their relationships because they may encounter work conflicts.
Job Stress, job performance, and social support among hospital nurses (AbuAlRub 2004, J Nurse Scholarsh): Questionnaire used to collect data on nurses work stress and performance. When nurses had “perceived social support from coworkers”, they had improved job performance. Low and high levels (but not moderate levels) of job stress resulted in better performance (i.e. U shaped curve).
Workplace Friend and Employee’s Productivity: LMX Theory and the Case of the Seoul City Govt (Song, 2014, International Review of Public Administration): Workplace friendships can increase satisfaction and performance in the workplace. Better quality friendships improve attitudes more than “friendship opportunity”.
Workplace Relationship Quality and Employee Information Experiences (Sias, 2006, Communication Studies): Better quality relationships between bosses and employees was correlated with increased communication and information transmission from boss to employee. When colleagues had better relationships, they transmitted better quality information to their co-workers and had better workplace satisfaction.
The role of social support in process of work stress: a meta-analysis (Viswesvaran, Sanches, Fisher, 2002, Journal of Vocational Behavior): Social support at work decreases work strain, perceived stressors, and “moderated the stressor-strain relationship”. However, social support is not necessarily utilized when stressors are present.