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How to manage workplace friendships and still be professional

HI, I live in Anchorage and am a management consultant and writer. I'm founder of www.bullywhisperer.com™, www.workplacecoachblog.com and www.thegrowthcompany.com. I'm author of Solutions and Beating the Workplace Bully, AMACOM. I author...

What to do when a work friendship interferes with doing your job

This week, I'm answering a question about how to separate personal and professional relationships with a coworker.

More: What to do if your coworkers are making you question your boss

Question:

When I learned by accident that a coworker was raised by alcoholic parents and then married a man who abused her, I felt an immediate bond. I’d never told anyone my story, but she and I shared a similar past. I opened up to her.

During the time we worked together, both of us divorced. It was messy for both of us, and we began talking every night. At first, we talked about what it was like to have alcoholic parents and why we were leaving our exes. Then we started talking about work.

Lately, my coworker’s issues with our boss have become the main topic of our conversations. She expects me to emotionally support her there, too. When I say I don’t have the same feeling about our boss, she gets upset. Last night she asked, “How can you say he’s all right when he does these things to me?”

I really care about my coworker and I’m her friend, but our boss hasn’t treated me the way she tells me he treats her. How do I handle this so without making her mad?

More: Mixing your love life and your job can be risky — is it worth it?

Answer:

When you work with a good friend and want to stay friends, you need to agree on work “road rules.”  When navigating traffic, you keep yourself and other drivers safe by exercising caution when the traffic light turns yellow and restricting your passing to areas in which you see a clear opportunity to make it safely past the car ahead.

Similarly, two friends navigating across the same work landscape need to agree on how to avoid high-risk behaviors that place either of them in jeopardy. From experience, essential road rules include allowing coworker friends to think for themselves and keeping personal issues out of the office when friend behavior might compromise working effectiveness.

When your friend shares her views about your mutual supervisor this evening, listen to her. Then let her know you support her as your friend and if you were hearing her talk about someone you didn’t know, you might say, “What a creep.”

Tell her you give her friend support — meaning listening, caring and honesty. Ask if she can allow you to think for yourself. Ask if she’d like to go out to dinner, your treat. After all, you are friends. But at dinner, don’t talk about work.

If she brings up the boss topic again, let her know you feel you support her best by honestly letting her know you see a different picture of your boss. Perhaps she sees a boss who’s “on her every minute.” Possibly you realize he feels he needs to be due to the fact that your friend doesn’t act with the sense of urgency he needs when deadlines loom.

You and your coworker found something special when you realized you shared common experiences and then developed a trusting relationship. Can you build on your friendship foundation by helping each other see past your individual blind spots?

More: 5 Ways to succeed in your new job

Have a question for Lynne? Email her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com with the subject line “SheKnows,” and she may answer your question (confidentially) in an upcoming piece on SheKnows.

© 2016, Lynne Curry. If you'd like an answer to your career question, it's easy. Write lynne@thegrowthcompany.com. Curry authored Solutions and Beating the Workplace Bully (AMACOM). You can also follow Lynne@lynnecurry10 on Twitter or access her other posts on SheKnows, www.workplacecoachblog.com or www.bullywhisperer.com.

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