Can you be friends with your boss on a yacht?

Mar 3, 2015 by Paul Ferdais

I’ve been asked a number of times if a supervisor can really be friends with their co-workers while at the same time being the boss. Some say it’s not a good idea in general or that supervisors should keep work and personal life completely separate.

These are valid points since, first and foremost, a major concern can be the perception of favoritism from the supervisor that may result in a possible breakdown of perceived authority.

Authentic leadership fundamentally rests on the relationships leaders have with their crew. If, in general, a leader is stand-offish and is seen as separate from the crew, they will have a more challenging time developing relationships with their people. The key point here is that a leader doesn’t have to become someone’s friend to have a good working relationship, but the lines can get blurred working on yachts.

The main issue compared to a lot of other work situations is that yacht crew spend a lot of time together in close quarters, sometimes with little chance of getting away. The reality of the job puts pressure on everyone as they try to find a work/life balance. It’s this challenge that can put pressure on us about how to be friends with our crew mates.

Yes, supervisors and leaders can be friends with their co-workers, but there are a few things that need to be done up front to avoid issues later. In general, a supervisor needs to clearly lay out their expectations with their crew about how the work/friend relationship will develop. But it’s not easy to do, is it? Use these steps as a guide to help limit the discomfort you may feel in this type of situation.

  1. Have a conversation. Make it a point to have a conversation about the challenges you face being a supervisor and friend with each of your co-workers. If their friendship is undermining your work situation, for example, through public challenges to decisions being made, this needs to be discussed, too. If you don’t address any issues directly, they’ll probably get worse.
  2. Acknowledge any discomfort and admit to uncertainty moving forward. Start with the obvious. Say “I realize that since we’ve become friends our workplace relationship has changed.” Or “Things have become a little awkward at work due to our personal friendship.” It doesn’t matter what your exact opening statement is; what’s important is that you get the dialogue going. Any dialogue in this situation shouldn’t be accusatory, judgmental or delivered with a sense of superiority.

In your conversation, ask if they’ve noticed any awkwardness or discomfort. Say something like “Have you noticed a change?” or “I don’t know what this means for our friendship going forward.” Demonstrate that you’re open to talking about what’s happening between you and your co-worker. This is a giant step toward creating a “new normal.”

  1. Clarify the difference between obligations and feelings. Somewhere in your discussion, it’s essential for you to reinforce that there is a difference between your work obligations and your personal feelings. The key message: “There will be times when my work responsibilities will require me to make decisions that don’t necessarily reflect our personal relationship.” The message sets out clear expectations about what may happen in the future.
  2. Ask for your co-worker’s support. Close your conversation by asking for your crew member’s support. This includes asking them to be a partner in your decisions. Say something like “I’d like to know if I can count on your support putting decisions into action.” When you involve them by asking for their support, you’re sending a powerful message by building trust and being upfront and honest.
  3. Accept that others will perceive favoritism. Recognize it, but don’t ignore it. There are two strategies to pursue. First, involve the “favored” crew member in figuring out how to deal with the situation. Ask them for their input in your plan of action. Second, open a dialogue with the individuals who feel that you show favoritism. While this won’t be an easy conversation, not addressing the issue will be even worse.
  4. Go elsewhere to vent. You cannot use your friends who are co-workers as sounding boards for your troubles. When you want to vent about a frustrating issue, seek out someone higher up in the organization who faces similar challenges.

Have the emotional courage to work through this process and you’ll be seen as a leader who isn’t afraid of difficult situations. Keep these six steps in mind and you’ll find that being a friend, co-worker and leader isn’t as hard as you thought.

Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group ( delivering leadership training workshops and coaching. He holds a master’s degree in leadership and spent years working his way up from deckhand, to first officer on yachts. Comments are welcome at