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Written By
Jordan Alexander

Ask a coach: How to set boundaries with work friends in 5 scenarios

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Table of Content

Table of Contents

This article was contributed by Intellect’s behavioural health coach Dr Jordan Alexander. She is an international best-selling author, the CEO of Love Assist Associates, and an ICF-accredited practitioner with decades of experience in workplace strategy and leadership.

Do you have a best friend at work?

The simple Gallup engagement question yields a not-so-simple answer. CNN Business considers work besties a bad idea, opting for ‘friendly’ over ‘friends’ in the workplace. Over the road, MIT hosts a love-in for work friends, lavishing them as lifelines in stressful times and essential for personal resilience. What gives? 

Why friendships at work matter

Humans are wired for connection. Given we’ll spend 81,396 hours or about nine years at work, it’s reasonable that “professional” gets “personal”. 

Friendships with your boss, teammates, and even clients start innocently enough. Working hard on a project. Chatting at morning tea or after-work drinks. You realise you are both mums and love tennis. Next thing you know, poof! The professional and personal separation blurs and you’re answering ‘yes’ to having a best friend at work.

There are tangible benefits: morale, happiness, and job satisfaction. They’re good for business too. Happy employees are less stressed, take fewer sick days and stick around. Besties at work contribute to better culture, less turnover, and higher loyalty. 

Work friendships positively impact the bottom line when things are going well. But human + human = complicated, so what are the unspoken rules to balancing them with boundaries?

Foundations for healthy relationships

Healthy relationships at work or home typically share five characteristics:

  1. Honesty. Both people are authentic, open and honest when they engage.
  2. Trust. As we are more vulnerable with each other, transactional talks turn into deep and meaningful ones. Trust takes time and you can’t rush the process.
  3. Respect. Be open to learning more about the other person. Show interest, be curious, and respect their diversity. 
  4. Care. Healthy relationships have emotional intelligence and love. You can be an imperfect human being and they’ll still be there for you.
  5. Communication. Effective two-way communication is key. Being aware, present, and actively listening.

Blurring professional and personal lines means communication is complex and layered. It’s not just getting the job done, there’s a friendship at stake too. Let’s explore some common issues we see as coaches, and how you can engage effectively when they arise.

Being friends with someone you manage

Your team members are your friends, but we can have very different personalities at work and at leisure. That chill guy’s a lot of fun to be around, but what happens when he brings his TGIF energy to your meeting on Monday morning? How do you tell him he’s not pulling his weight? 

Scenario

Your team member is always texting during meetings. It’s affecting the team’s output and his reputation as others have commented that he is disinterested. You want to say something, but worry things may get awkward when you hang out.

Tip: Try “two hats”

Setting boundaries should include the modus operandi if both parties hit a bump. Perhaps you agree to start conversations with: “I’m wearing my work hat now” or “I’m putting on my friend hat”. You could ask: “Are you open to some feedback on what I’ve observed at work?”

The scenario is complex. Your friend’s feelings may be stopping you from saying something that is in his and the business’s best interest. Would you say something if it wasn’t your friend? If both of you agreed to be professional at work, does that affect how you act now?

Being friends with a client 

Our communication checklist says to be open and honest, but you cannot share commercially sensitive information with a friend. While discretion is essential to professionalism (a true friend will respect such boundaries), it may inhibit you from getting real with your friends.

Scenario

Your company is thinking about acquiring a transport firm, which will impact your current transport supplier – a friend’s company – adversely. You can see how it makes financial sense, but feel compelled to pre-empt your friend lest he feels blindsided later.

Tip: Different horses, different courses

To stay consistent (authentic and with integrity) and professional (not disclosing confidential information), you’ll need to tailor your messages to the recipient. You may emphasise the benefits (e.g. cost savings) of the acquisition to internal stakeholders, but give your friend a heads-up like, “Just keeping you in the loop. We’re considering alternatives to our transport solution and it may have an impact, but it’s just thinking about at this stage.”

It’s possible to see the acquisition as both good and bad news, depending on which hat you’re wearing. Altering messages to suit different people doesn’t mean you are compromising your integrity. Authentic communication can vary in style, words, and approaches, but the facts remain consistent.

Being friends with a coworker

Setting boundaries means being aligned on the nature of your friendship and having clear expectations. Are we colleagues that lunch? Play on the company soccer team? Share personal at-home situations? But wherever the line is drawn, friction can still work its way to the office. 

Scenario

Something you shared with your work friend during a social engagement was repeated at work. You had shared this information in confidence, and now you feel exposed and embarrassed. How do you raise this with them?

Tip: Push pause & do over

If you find yourself in an emotionally-charged discussion that is more personal than professional, don’t be afraid to pause. A pause allows people to gain perspective, release heightened emotions, and reconnect calmly and effectively after. You may say, “I think we both agree we could have handled that better.” So history doesn’t repeat itself, you may even lay the ground rules of what’s private and what isn’t from here on out.

No matter how heated things get, always be kind in your speech. Caring language, rather than criticism or contempt, is key to tackling tricky topics. If the bump turns into an irreconcilable difference, you may want to talk through your options with your coach. 

Being friends with your manager

Being friends with your manager can go both ways. When handed a coveted opportunity, coworkers may speculate that you’re receiving “special” treatment. Conversely, to avoid appearing partial, they may deny you of these opportunities altogether.

Scenario

You worked hard to land a client and feel really stoked about having them in your portfolio. However, as you’re spearheading another big project, your direct manager slash friend asked you to let a new hire own it, saying “I’m sure you understand”. You feel like you’ve been put in a spot.

Tip: Check and connect

It’s always important to prepare when communicating, even more so when friendship dynamics arise. Using present-moment awareness allows you to consider different perspectives, check your mood, and ensure you are not distracted before engaging. 

Present-moment awareness may lead to ideas to address the perceived bias. Could you co-own the project with the new hire and assume the role of a mentor?

Being friends with peers

A little rivalry is inevitable at work, but when does friendly competition turn into conflict? According to a study by Forbes in 2020, peer ratings among managers tend to be low while that among individual contributors tends to be high. What does that mean for work friendships at different layers of the organisation?

Scenario

A fellow manager you trusted is taking advantage of your relationship for professional gain. They applied for the promotion you want after hearing about your strategy to win the role. You are furious and want to confront them now.

Tip: Before & after breath barometer

When emotions are at an all-time high, use the breath barometer to shift from reaction to response. Take a few deep breaths. As you exhale, be aware of how you are feeling about the situation. Using a scale of 1 to 10, where ten is the maximum level of anger, hurt and betrayal you can feel, record the number. 

Next, write out what you want to say with love and compassion before you engage with the person. The simple act of writing is healing and provides a healthy way for you to prepare for a challenging conversation. Finally, use the breath barometer again. On a scale of 1 to 10, how are you feeling now?

Friendships and boundaries at work

In summary:

  • Take personal responsibility for your end of the interaction and focus on what you can control. Let the other person walk in their own shoes.
  • Set and keep clear boundaries preferably early in the discussion to avoid crossover between professional and personal down the line.
  • Be honest. No one wants to share or receive feedback that may be difficult to hear. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it or spin a story that isn’t true.
  • Be consistent. Speak with integrity and don’t have one conversation in the boardroom and another in the hallway. The message shouldn’t change, even if the audience does.
  • Be kind. There is never a reason to communicate with anger or intentionally hurt someone. No matter the circumstance, do your best self and be kind to others.

If you have a conflict you need to resolve, coaching can help you develop strategies and take practical action. And if you’ve been keeping most coworkers at arm’s length, it could help you learn how to build connections.

Nevertheless, the nuances of friendships vary across regions. For example, Koreans and Americans have different expectations about upholding interpersonal harmony in friendships. Another study found that friendships are more valued in countries that are more economically equal and high in indulgence.

Finding a coach who understands you is key. To that end, Intellect has a diverse panel of local providers  across Asia at the ready, ensuring that support is culturally relevant, timely, and effective. Ultimately, healthy relationships with others start with a positive one with yourself. 

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