Are you someone who makes a lot of friends at work? If you are, you probably get more satisfaction from your job, and more than likely you excel. There’s plenty of research supporting the idea that having friends at work makes you happier and more engaged.

Having a best friend at work is a strong predictor of success. According to a Gallup Organization study of more than 5 million workers over 35, 56% of the people who say they have a best friend at work are engaged, productive, and successful while only 8% of the ones who don’t are.

But what if you’re the boss? And what happens if you were part of a team, and then got promoted to manager or leader? What happens to your friendships? Are you now going to keep your distance? That seems a bit callous and harsh.

Early in my career, I had such an experience. I loved the people I worked with and when they asked me to manage the team, I was thrilled and sure I would have the best results. After all, we worked great together. I even jumped in to help them get their tasks done.

One day a colleague pointed out to me they’d prefer I managed things from my office; they could get their work done better if I’d take care of the coordination and other managerial stuff. I wanted them to succeed so much, I was trying to help them do their jobs! As a new manager, I was having a hard time adjusting to my new role and the necessary shifts in our buddy-buddy relationships.

Friendships between a leader and an employee are tricky and messy. What happens when problems come up? How does a boss address performance issues and still keep a friendship going? What if cuts are needed and some will lose their jobs? Does the boss choose a friend or a non-friend to go or to stay?

There are bosses who go to extremes by not showing any friendliness towards their people: “I’m not here to make friends!” But when the boss is detached and hard to connect with, there’s a lack of trust. People don’t go the extra mile for bosses who don’t seem to care about them.

I ran cross this blog post on Harvard Business Review by Peter Bregman, who makes some really good suggestions  to help senior leaders maintain their leadership and their friendships at the same time:

  • Have a strong, clear commitment to your business objectives. If you want to achieve something, you must be willing to make hard decisions. Be transparent, upfront, and passionate, even as others, including friends, disagree with you.
  • Develop your friendship skills. Certain skills, like unwavering integrity, empathetic listening, and strong boundaries, can help you manage dual roles of friend and business leader.
  • Be prepared to lose the friendship. Recognize that you ultimately can’t control what happens to the friendship. Some people just might not be able to live with your decisions. Learn to feel the sadness and move on.

These rules are undoubtedly hard to follow. The critical skill underlying all of them is emotional courage – the willingness to act powerfully in the face of deep emotion.

I found that the friends I had cultivated before becoming their manager remained friends, but the relationship had to shift. Once I accepted that shift, we worked together much better.

What’s been your experience with friendships at work?