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Overhaul relationship boundaries when your friend becomes your boss

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in Your Office Coach

Q: “I’m having trouble adjusting to my new job as the office manager for a small business. My biggest problem is that one of the owners, ‘Emily,’ behaves very erratically.

“Emily is highly emotional, constantly fluctuating between enthusiastic support and crushing criticism. Sometimes she is encouraging, but at other times she becomes obsessed with insignificant details. She is like this with everyone, including her business partner.

“A week ago, I sent Emily an email complaining about her inappropriate behavior. She has yet to reply and has stopped coming into my office. According to her partner, she is ‘working on a response.’

“I got this job because Emily and I have been friends for more than seven years. We have often shared personal problems and helped each other as neighbors. Our relationship is more important to me than this position.

“I would like to help Emily overcome her emotional instability, because it is making my job much more difficult. What do you advise?”  Emily’s Friend

A: After seven years, Emily’s personality could hardly have come as a complete surprise. The real problem here is that you are trying to mix two very different types of relationships. Emily has been your buddy, but now she is also your boss. Such a power imbalance inevitably changes the nature of any friendship.

Because of these altered circumstances, you need to redraw your relationship boundaries. For example, you say you want to “help Emily overcome her emotional instability." But while counseling a friend about personal issues might be helpful, attempting to counsel your boss about personal issues can lead to career suicide.

To make matters worse, you took the coward’s way out by expressing your displeasure through email. Interpersonal problems should never be addressed in writing, because the recipient typically feels attacked and responds in kind, thereby escalating the conflict.

At this point, you need to decide whether you can adjust to being Emily’s employee. If so, stop waiting for an email reply and go talk to her. Explain that the change in your relationship has been a difficult adjustment, but you want to make it work. You may find that this transition has been tough for her as well.

But if continued stress and tension seem unavoidable, begin planning a graceful exit. Otherwise, you could wind up losing both a job and a friend.

Trying to build a better boss relationship? Here are some ideas: 10 Helpful Things to Say to Your Boss.

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