Mastering Professional Boundaries: Nurturing Friendship with a Colleague in a Position of Authority

By Prity Kumar, MD, Alphard Group

New Delhi (India), June 18: Working in a senior executive role often entails a sense of isolation. Tough messages must be delivered, personal challenges are often kept private, and crucial decisions must be kept under wraps until the appropriate moment arrives.

The burdens of authority are inevitable. Occasionally, however, friendships may form within the organizational hierarchy. While peer-to-peer friendships are common, navigating a friendship with someone under your supervision presents unique challenges due to the inherent power dynamics.

Take, for instance as an example Rashmee and Kausar, whose friendship blossomed over shared outdoor adventures spanning more than a decade. Despite weathering various challenges together, their relationship began in a different context. Rashmee held a vice president position within the company, while Kausar reported to her as a senior manager.

Such Vice President-employee friendships are fraught with potential pitfalls. The risk of damaging either the friendship or the professional relationship looms large. Moreover, colleagues may withhold valuable feedback if they perceive favoritism, jeopardizing trust within the team. Striking the delicate balance between confidentiality and transparency is crucial to preserving both the friendship and the working dynamic.

Friendship Dynamics

In her capacity, Rashmee often came across information that could significantly impact Kausar’s professional sphere, such as potential layoffs or promotions. Despite their close friendship, Rashmee had to maintain strict confidentiality regarding such sensitive matters. Trusting in Kausar’s understanding of the professional boundaries, Rashmee refrained from sharing confidential information. In discussions with Kausar, she demonstrated comprehension, referring to it as her ability to handle sensitive information with resilience.

However, not every individual possesses this level of resilience. Some employees may feel aggrieved or disheartened by withheld information or critical feedback. Additionally, not all managers are adept at navigating the delicate balance of disclosure and discretion. Nevertheless, there are strategies to foster successful friendships within the workplace. Below are five tips on effectively managing a friendship with a subordinate.

Exercise discretion in selecting your friends.

This guidance may evoke memories of our mother’s imparting wisdom as they bid us farewell on our first day of kindergarten. However, its significance amplifies within the workplace setting. Cultivating a friendship with a subordinate demands considerable trust and discernment from both parties involved. Not every professional relationship lends itself to such camaraderie. Rashmee emphasizes the need for maturity and self-assurance to foster trust gradually. As Rashmee aptly puts it, “It’s not overly complex, just a matter of maintaining clear communication and boundaries set expectations at the start.”

Clarify your respective roles during conversations.

Establishing explicit norms for professional and personal interactions fosters a sense of balance and fairness in your friendship. Whether engaged in a one-on-one discussion within the office or spending leisure time together after hours, it’s crucial to articulate the nature of the conversation. Consider phrases such as “Let’s address this from a personal standpoint” or “Before we delve into work matters, is it alright if we touch base on a personal topic?” Moreover, it’s essential to gauge your friend’s comfort level with the conversation’s timing. As a manager, you might inquire, “Would now be an appropriate time to discuss your project progress?” This approach empowers your friend to actively participate in determining the conversation’s focus and timing.

Maintain transparency with colleagues and stakeholders.

Given Rashmee’s position above Kausar, she took proactive steps during meetings involving her direct reports to avoid conflicts of interest, particularly regarding Kausar’s compensation discussions. Rashmee made it explicitly clear that her friendship with Kausar should not sway the team’s decision-making process. Such transparency is crucial to create a conducive environment for open communication. Colleagues may feel hesitant to express their opinions, especially if they fear potential repercussions or undue influence on the outcome of discussions. Conversely, as a manager, you might possess insider knowledge that could inadvertently impact professional deliberations. Rashmee emphasized the importance of ensuring that confidential information remains contextualized appropriately to prevent any misunderstandings. Do your job.

Communicate directly and promptly, particularly when delivering negative feedback or delivering unwelcome news such as layoffs. Despite potential discomfort in fear of hurting your friend’s feelings or causing defensiveness, it’s essential to address issues openly. However, anticipate that there may be challenges or even temporary strains in your relationship as a result. Concluding the conversation, express your desire to maintain the friendship while allowing your colleague space to determine if they wish to continue the relationship.

For instance, Ramesh and Sandeep, long-time friends, found themselves in a similar situation when Ramesh became Sandeep’s manager. After a few years, Ramesh had to inform Sandeep about the elimination of his job. This was undoubtedly a difficult moment for both parties, as Sandeep expressed. Despite the initial hardship, Sandeep ultimately understood that Ramesh’s decision was based on business needs, not personal bias. Although it took time, Sandeep maintained his friendship with Ramesh, acknowledging the importance of separating professional decisions from personal relationships.

Friendships thrive on mutual trust and transparency. Managing relationships between managers and employees requires finesse, particularly when handling sensitive information. Surviving work friendships are built on clear communication boundaries and trust in both parties’ professionalism.

About the Author- Mrs. Prity Kumar is a trailblazing entrepreneur who has been at the helm of Alphard Group as Co-Founder and Group Managing Director since 2009. Alphard Group stands as a beacon in the Maritime Logistics and Marine Services sector, boasting a global presence across India, Athens, London, California, Dubai, and Singapore. Prity’s journey is one of remarkable resilience and determination. Rising from humble beginnings, she has shattered barriers in the male-dominated maritime industry to emerge as a distinguished leader. Her role involves overseeing day-to-day operations, spearheading human resources initiatives, and driving ambitious expansion plans

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