How to Deal with Friendships during the Peer to Leader Transition

Kathy Archer
5 min readNov 22, 2021


When I moved from peer to peer manager in my nonprofit, I didn’t realize how hard it would be on friendships I’d developed over the past several years. Nor did I realize how hard it would be to create new boundaries as a new leader. But it was!

Women leaders struggle with past friendships.
Sarah echoed that sentiment at a recent training I did. She’d moved from peer to team lead less than a year ago and was now needing to address performance issues with her friend, and she was dreading it!

  • Janet jumped right in nodded her head, saying her friend expected her to give her the best shifts.
  • Nancy noted how hard it was to steer the conversation away from work when she and her friend/subordinate got their kids together for a play date.
  • Becca said, I don’t mind talking about work with my friend/subordinate, but I don’t know how to stop the gossiping. That’s what we used to love doing, bantering back and forth about everyone. But now I can’t, and it feels awkward to stop it.
  • Daja rounded out the comments by adding how hard it is to include everyone for lunchtime chats when it used to be just her and her friend at work. But, now, as the leader, she knows she needs to include everyone.

You may be nodding your head right now, knowing full well what these ladies are talking about

Even if you made it very many years ago, that transition still gets you in trouble if you have not created new relationship parameters with your friends.

But research shows you should have a best friend at work.
I want to start this conversation by asking you if you have a best friend at work. Gallup measures your response to that question as of the 12 questions it asks to measure engagement in the workplace.

Gallup’s research has found that women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with the women who say otherwise (29%).

In their Women in America: Work and Life Well-Lived report, Gallup found that two-thirds of women say the social aspect of a job is a “major reason” why they work.

So let yourself off the hook if you have friendships at work and crave friendships at work. It’s normal and even, in my opinion, necessary. The key is those friendships need to be developed with different people as you move into leadership positions. And you need to re-define the relationships you have with friends previously.

Friendships are different than being friendly.
Rather than define the difference, let’s look at synonyms because I think it points it out very clearly.

Other words for a friend: chum, crony, confidant.
Other words for friendly: kindly, cordial, helpful, receptive

If you cringed at the first list, I know you know the difference!

Friendships versus friendly examples
It may be helpful to look at some examples now.

Does going to someone’s house after work mean you are friends or just being friendly? That depends.

Is it just you, or only a few of the employees? Or is everyone on the team invited openly?

  • Coworkers who are friendly invite everyone
  • Friends who dislike some of the people they work with are selective.

When is having a conversation with someone about a coworker appropriate for a leader/subordinate conversation? That depends.

Who’s behaviour are you focused on?
Coworkers often vent and gossip about others in the workplace to find commonalities, create connections, and share struggles.
The conversation between leaders and their subordinates focuses on the subordinate’s behaviour with their peers. The leader often coaches them to be their best self.

  • What have you tried so far?
  • What worked? What didn’t? What did you learn?
  • In what ways are you not being the person you would like to be in this situation?
  • If you were using your strengths, how would you deal with that troublesome behaviour?

So how do you move from being friends to creating some boundaries with your friendships?

Here are 4 tips

1) Have an open and honest conversation with your friend that the relationship will or has changed.
Acknowledging that the relationship has changed will lay the foundation for a stronger trusting relationship in the future.

2) Get clear on how the boundaries change for yourself.
For example, Saturday night wine nights may not be an option now. Nor will the conversations about certain people on the team be appropriate anymore. So what is the line that you now need to draw?

3) Begin to state those boundaries overtly as well as model them.
When conversations come up that are inappropriate for your newly structured relationships, steer the conversation in a different direction or clearly state that we can’t be having these kinds of conversations anymore.

4) Most importantly, become very self-aware.
Moving into new leadership positions will activate imposter syndrome, feelings of being not enough, and highlight your weaknesses. Additionally, you’ll quickly learn where you lack competence and experience.

All of this will trigger you when things are going on around you. It’s often here where you revert to old ways with old friends. Instead, it’s time to both build your self-confidence and your self-awareness.

It’s also vitally important now to create new friendships at new levels. Find others outside of the organization and build new relationships with them. Try to connect with peers at other organizations. You may also connect with peer students in leadership training sessions. Finally, find a trusted mentor or coach to work through challenges with who will hold confidentiality for you.

Realigning relationships will help to strengthen relationships with everyone on the team. So rather than having special bonds with certain people and other people seeing favouritism, you’ll be creating friendly relationships with everyone.

One of the biggest challenges I hear from women I work with is that leadership is lonely. When you join The Training Library, you become part of a community of like-minded women growing their leadership! Learn more here.

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Kathy Archer

Helping women leaders make it in the nonprofit world. Leadership Development Coach * Best-Selling Author * Wife * Mom * Grandma * Mom to one boxer named Zeus!