Catherine’s Story: When Friendship Creates Unfair Expectations


Note: Catherine is a fictional character. Clients’ personal stories are always kept strictly confidential.

Our first phone call

“Hi, Audrey. I became the Dean of my school last year, after many years as faculty and department chair. I’ve always had good relationships with my colleagues and people are supportive of me but because we’ve been friends for a long time, they expect preferential treatments and I don’t know how to change that.”

“Hi, Catherine. Can you please give me an example?”

“Yes. Let me start by giving you some background information. When I was selected to be the new Dean, the Associate Dean was so upset she didn’t get the job that she decided to leave and spent most of her time looking for another job. As an Associate Dean, she took it for granted that she would replace the Dean upon his retirement. That reflects the culture of entitlement here. Anyway, she found employment elsewhere and is gone now. I am just about to start interviewing to replace her. Two of my faculty members seem quite sure that they will be chosen as my new Associate Dean. We have an outstanding pool of applicants and neither one of the internal candidates is as qualified as some of our external candidates.”

“What do you fear will happen if you hire an external candidate?”

“Well… The two internal candidates are probably not going to cause problems, but their feelings will be hurt and… they won’t like me anymore. It’s going to be awkward to keep working together knowing that I denied them what they wanted most. Loyalty is important. It pains me that if I hire the most qualified candidate, I will appear disloyal to my team.”

Doing what’s right

Catherine had difficulty seeing the situation clearly because she was overwhelmed by her emotions. For many years, she had let other people’s opinions and preferences influence her decision-making instead of trusting her own judgment. Now, being the Dean, she could no longer do that. It was time to separate emotions from her assessment of the situation, so that she could make the right choice without feeling guilty.

I asked her to forget for a moment who the candidates were and tell me what characteristics she would like her future Associate Dean to have. She listed what was important to her regarding skills, experience, attitude, emotional intelligence, and leadership style. As she described what she was looking for, she became increasingly enthusiastic. During her first year as Dean, she had to work with a disgruntled and unhelpful Associate Dean and while she was glad the person had left, she hadn’t realized that it was the perfect opportunity to hire someone who could be a real asset, not just someone she could tolerate.

To help her see the bigger picture, I asked her to describe who else would benefit from her hiring someone who would match her description. She realized that it would be highly beneficial for the faculty, the students, the university leadership, as well as future students because having an Associate Dean she could rely on would allow her to make time for strategic planning and innovation. Wow! There was so much more at stake than she first thought!

Redefining loyalty

Catherine had now found the courage to do what was right, and to hire the most qualified candidate, without giving preference to a friend. But she felt uneasy about it because she felt disloyal. I asked her: “Does loyalty mean giving people what they haven’t earned yet, or what they aren’t ready for, or what they couldn’t get without your intervention, is that it?” She paused for a moment and replied. “I didn’t see it that way. Loyalty means… being on their side and helping them succeed. But helping them get a position they aren’t ready for isn’t in their best interest either... That would seem dishonest and it would hurt me to see them struggle.”

Another issue was that two faculty members expected to be chosen for the position, but there was only one job opening. No matter who she (and the rest of the hiring committee) would choose, she could not please everyone. Her loyalty had to be directed where it matters most: to the students and to the university. I asked Catherine some questions to bring to the surface her value system, and just like I expected, she saw herself as a servant leader. Her allegiance was to student success, fairness, and equity. While she cared very much about her friends, she couldn’t let personal relationships stop her from doing her job.

Professional identity

When clients seem to lose sight of their own values, I ask them to define who they want to be as a leader. It’s important for them to describe how they want to think and act, what they want to accomplish, as well as how they want to be perceived. Do they want to be someone who is consistent and fair in how they make decisions, or someone who is easily swayed? If they want to be trusted, they will have to show fairness so that people don’t fear seeing them flip-flop when doing what’s right isn’t popular.

Catherine had a strong sense of integrity and high level of dedication to her work. Once she gained clarity on what type of leader she wanted to be, this description became her guiding force. Instead of doing what she wanted to do as a friend, she did what she knew was right as the person in charge of making decisions for her school.

Finding peace through clarity

In our coaching sessions, Catherine discovered that first, she needed to look at situations objectively to create standards and guidelines to use for decision-making. Second, if she felt uneasy about disappointing anyone, she needed to question assumptions and gain more perspective. Deep down, she always knew what to do. The issue was to give herself permission to do it rather than letting other people choose for her.

Her most important breakthroughs were discovering that her team members were more willing to accept “bad news” than she expected, once she took the time to explain which factors were considered and how decisions were made. Transparency and fairness helped improve morale and team spirit. As she became more comfortable finding her voice and owning her decisions, she felt more peace and gained more influence with her peers and the rest of the leadership team.

Can you relate to Catherine? Are friendships and loyalty stopping you from doing what you know is best? If you are experiencing any level of inner-conflict or self-doubt or pressure, I invite you to click here and schedule a complimentary call with me to discuss how I can help you thrive. Let’s talk soon.

 About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, and online courses. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.