There’s a lot of talk about creating the right climate for women in the workplace in order to break the glass ceiling. For example by providing flexible working hours, shared maternity leave and equal pay. But when women achieve their career goals, how should they manage the personal drawbacks of success that affect their working relationships? What happens when a woman is promoted above her friends and how can HR help women to manage those relationships to make sure the transition is successful and doesn’t damage a crucial asset?
So why am I talking specifically about women and relationships? Surely workplace dynamics are just as important to men? Not in general, according to organisational psychologist, Carol Gallagher, who found that of the two hundred high-ranking senior executive women she studied, the ability to build beneficial and positive relationships ranked among their four critical career success factors. Studies have also shown that, in a working environment, a large proportion of women tend to think in terms of relationships, rather than by hierarchy and that relationships in the workplace are generally far more important to women than to men.
Of course this isn’t true for all women, but it does mean that female executives are statistically more likely to adopt a collaborative leadership style, address emotional issues at work and make concerted efforts to get along with their colleagues. However, it also means that those relationships have to be well managed when circumstances change.
While we all want to see our female colleagues succeed, the reality is that often power and friendships isn’t a good combination. Friendship is generally reciprocal, whereas a power dynamic means that the one that holds the power has to delegate to the one that doesn’t. Despite this being a normal professional dynamic, any personal relationship can become hostile and filled with resentment.
When women are promoted above their female colleagues and friends, there can be a few pitfalls when: for example, a female colleague feels resentful over her friend having legitimate power over her or, because new bosses can veer towards giving colleagues too much leeway and can be afraid to speak up if they’re performing badly, putting a strain on the relationship.
So how can HR departments advise women who’ve been promoted above their friends – or when their peers become their subordinates? It doesn’t have to be a nightmare, there are a few things female bosses can do to help their work friends get used to their new role.
1. Refrain from asserting their new status immediately in an aggressive way. When delegating to people who were recently equals on a professional level, it’s useful to couch it in softer terms such as “could you do me a favour” or “I’m really pressed for time today” rather than giving out orders – even though managers are well within their professional rights to delegate, their friends may feel resentful at the change in dynamic if it’s handled too abruptly
2. Hold regular team meetings and take on board everyone’s ideas. Adopting a collaborative leadership style will help to keep noses in joint and foster a more productive working relationship.
3. Be clear about their position – although leaders shouldn’t assert their dominance straight away for the sake of it, it’s important for their new employees to know who’s in charge. Being collaborative doesn’t mean being walked over, and female bosses should be encouraged and advised to deal with difficult or slack employees as soon as possible, nipping any potential issues in the bud.
4. Take a step back – although relationships are important, no manager should let their judgement become clouded because of them. Before dealing with any situation, advise them to think about whether they would deal with it in the same way if they weren’t dealing with a friend. That way, a balance between being delicate about the relationship dynamics and doing the objectively right thing can be found.
5. Don’t adopt a whole new persona – although some topics of conversation may be less appropriate, the reality is that a promotion does not erase potentially years of relationship building. Help the new manager to find a balance between being part of the team and leading it.