My friend wasn’t impressed with my suggestion. In fact, I caught him rolling his eyes ever so slightly.
He was a bank manager that had just taken over a new branch and we were having a discussion about leadership. I asked him if he was doing anything to get to know his new staff such as inviting them to his house for a BBQ. He shot me a look that said ‘You idiot’ and then said, “no, I would never do that.”
Insert subtle eye rolling.
I love it when people think I’m an idiot.
Guess who decided not to offer to pay for lunch.
To him the idea of blurring lines between work and personal life was a big no no. To me, it was common place. I’ve had staff teams over to my house countless times.
So whose right?
Well…neither, and this brings us to the question, can you, and should you be friends with those you lead?
It’s complicated. But let’s try to make it less so.
Leadership is built on trust, and trust is forged through relationships. There are many aspects to relationships but mutual respect is one of the biggest. So is likability. It’s important to genuinely like those you lead, and for them to like you. It’s not your primary goal (being liked) but if they don’t like you, well, you’re in for a rough ride.
When your people like you, they’re happier at work, they trust you more, and they are willing to work harder. Its part of the law of reciprocity. But when the relationship is strained, people will withhold their trust, and not give you that extra discretionary effort which is necessary for your team to reach its full potential.
But liking and being liked by your staff is not the same as being friends.
Let’s look at two other examples of working together that may shed some light on this.
Teams – If you’ve ever played on a sports team you know the challenge and thrill of working together to accomplish a goal. During a season many friendships are built, some lasting for life, but more times than not, once the season is over, everyone goes their separate ways, content with the memories of what you accomplished together. The fact that you no longer grab a beer once a week does not mean that you were never friends in the first place, it just means you were teammates for a time.
Families – A family is like a team that doesn’t split at the end of the season, and yet it’s not really a group of friends. Instead, it’s a group bound together by familial ties that must work in harmony in order to survive. At times it’s filled with drama and yet within this group you will find a close kinship of people you can trust. We rely on our families to be there for us if we’re ever in trouble. But you wouldn’t really define the group as friends. When one of my daughters introduces me to her friends she always refers to my title… “This is my Dad.” It’s a role I play in her life. We’re friends…kinda…until she gets grounded. Then she hates me.
Right now she hates me.
So back to the workplace…Strong respectful relationships are essential to your success and so is a degree of likability. But that doesn’t mean you must be personal friends. While I’ve always tried to create a staff that is close-knit, leading your friends does have its pitfalls. Here are a couple of biggies:
Perceived favoritism – If you’re going to be on the chummy side as a boss then do so with everyone. If you have a closer friendship with one of your direct reports, it opens the door for others on the team to look for signs of favoritism. In this setting, even the most innocent of gestures or actions can be interpreted as favoritism for your friend. This erodes team morale and engagement…quickly.
It’s harder to give performance feedback – As a leader you’re paid to produce results which requires you to manage performance. At times, this means calling people out of their comfort zone, which is…well…uncomfortable. This is not something friends normally do to each other because it strains the relationship. Strained relationships are stressful and who needs more complexity in their life. Because of this it increases the likelihood that you will not lead a friend as effectively.
Your role as a leader casts a long shadow – I’m always telling leaders that they have what I call a weighted relationship with those they lead. Your words count for more, your praise is more uplifting and your criticism heavier. As a boss you hold a certain degree of power over someone’s life like the authority to get them fired. They know this and even in the most mature of relationships, this can affect the dynamic.
A lot of this comes down to the make up of your team and you as a leader. If you would rather keep a professional distance, meaning you’d rather not cross any lines of friendship, that’s ok, as long as you’re friendly. Remember, great relationships make for great teams because they create an environment of psychological safety and trust.
If you’re more like me and you like having closer relationships with your staff, that’s ok too, but you have to know it comes with a price. Despite the benefits, it can be harder to give people feedback and when you have to let someone go, it can be excruciating. For me, the price is worth it because I value all the other times where we joke around, laugh, and rally around each other when times are tough. It also makes my job of motivating them easier.
Remember, there is no one size fits all when it comes to leadership. Being a great boss is about who you are as a person, your uniqueness, your quirks, your vision, your passion, and how well you motivate those around you.
So whether you want to be good fiends with your staff or not, comes down to your preference and in some degree the make up of your staff. Regardless of which way you lean on this issue, there’s one thing that’s non negotiable if you want to be a great boss – your people need to know you care.