Having a bad relationship with the boss can create all kinds of angst. But, it turns out, a close and cosy connection can actually be just as stressful — sometimes more so.

Gabby Sullivan, a design professional in northern California, in the US, knows first-hand how stressful it can be. Sullivan and her boss were close friends, work partners and even shared the same position, until he got promoted.

If you have a close relationship with someone, disappointment is seen more like betrayal

Sullivan felt he now seemed to hold her to a higher standard than he did everyone else and accused her of not following his chain of command. Then came grumblings from colleagues that Sullivan was receiving preferential treatment. It was a no-win situation.

Meanwhile, outside of work, their friendship also changed, and the two rarely saw each other anymore. When they did, Sullivan found herself giving short, succinct answers and not wanting to engage in casual conversation. The situation became so stressful that Sullivan ended up taking a two-month leave of absence just to “detach” and take a break from it all.

“It was really uncomfortable for a really long time,” she says.

Call it the too-close-to-succeed dilemma.

“During times of change, in physically challenging situations and in moral dilemmas, having a particularly strong relationship with one’s supervisor can add to the pressure employees feel,” says Jeremy Bernerth, associate professor of management at San Diego State University, in an email. And it’s not just a feeling. This phenomenon is evident in higher stress levels, increased absences and, counter to what some might think, in weakened performance, he found in his research.

Healthy balance

Of course, there is nothing wrong with strong relationships with your boss, at least in the short run, says Berlin-based Konstantin Korotov, director of European School of Management and Technology Centre for Leadership Development Research.

Work relationships are no different than any other relationships

But, “in the long run, such a situation can lead to fatigue, cynicism, or disappointment on the part of the employee,” he says by email.

That’s especially true if your close relationship puts you in a position where you’re pushed to compromise your ethics or judgment because your pally boss expects you to be on his side.

It all adds up to something most of us probably never expected from what looked to be a great work relationship: the same stresses we feel with the people we are closest to outside of work, such as our parents or our partners.

 “Work relationships are no different than any other relationships,” says Vincent Passarelli, a New York-based clinical psychologist and organisational consultant. “We have the tendency to recreate at work the same dynamics that we have had prior in our lives.”

 In other words, we go into our jobs with a set of expectations based on our early, adolescent, and adult experiences, he says. “How well does [your] family communicate? How do people express affection? How do people apologise? Is the relationship conditional or unconditional?” Passarelli asks. These same questions play out at work.

The closer you are, the harder it can be

And, while it might seem that being closer to your boss would make for better communication, it can also make for much more loaded relationships, says Passarelli. “On paper, the more distant the relationship is, the more difficult [you would think] it would be. But, really, the closer we are, the more vulnerable we are.”

Because of that increased vulnerability, we start to interpret things differently. “If you have a close relationship with someone, disappointment is seen more like betrayal,” says Passarelli. “You’re going to see your disagreements as rejection. You’re not going to see it as, ‘I know you have to do what you have to do career-wise.’”

If you work in a company where professional relationships and friendships go hand-in hand, switching from friend to employee can be nearly impossible, adding yet another layer of stress and uncertainty, explains New York-based organisational consultant Beth Fisher-Yoshida.

“It may feel like code switching,” says Fisher-Yoshida. “First, you are my friend, and now you are coming down on me, so cold and distant.”

And like in any close interpersonal relationship, that hot-and-cold cycle at the office can leave you feeling abandoned

And like in a marriage or any close interpersonal relationship, that hot-and-cold cycle at the office can leave you feeling abandoned, says Passarelli. “What happened to this person I saw everyday? Now I’m lucky if it’s every two weeks. Naturally, I’m going to think I’ve been totally abandoned, I’ve been totally let down.”

Keeping her distance

When Sullivan came back from her leave, not much had changed and another incident happened in which her boss called her out in an unprofessional manner. It’s no surprise that behaviour like this would leave her feeling confused and vulnerable, says Passarelli, especially if she and her boss were once close friends.

“It’s much easier going from boss to friend than the other way around, because there is just so much pre-existing that goes into [the relationship],” he says. “And transitions by default are just very hard.” This is especially true if a boss or supervisor doesn’t lay out in a clear manner what to expect and what is expected.

“After that, I decided I really needed to disassociate on the friendship level, which meant being very professional and very clear about what I was asking and making sure to get all of my approvals,” says Sullivan. She no longer considered her boss a friend; the days of spending holidays together and joking around were over.

The days of spending holidays together and joking around were over

That’s something that takes a lot of “self-knowledge and being able to set boundaries for yourself”, says Lorraine Tilbury, founder of personal and professional development firm HorsePower International in Loire Valley, France. “Self-knowledge means that you’re able to identify what your own core values are and you’re able to ‘listen’ to your body and identify when too much is being asked of you, either physically or psychologically.”

In that way, it’s not that different from dealing with a bully or narcissistic boss. Either way, you are navigating a relationship with someone who doesn’t have your best interest at heart. You need to ask yourself, “Is this someone I can really trust?” Passarelli says.

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