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Manager and Employee as Friends?

Over the weekend, I caught a little bit of a piece on one of the morning news shows about whether or not it’s a good idea to be friends with your boss.  This is one of those conversations that has been going on as long as there have been bosses and it appears that we are no where near a definitive answer.  It’s a interesting question to consider.

For starters, what exactly does it mean to be friends?  Even before Facebook added another definition to the word, this hasn’t been a black and white question.  Each person has a different definition of what it means to be friends.  For some, a friend is someone who you spend time with outside of work.  For others, a friend is someone who you share your deepest, darkest secrets with.  And for others, a friend is who you go out and get into trouble with (and call it fun).  I personally think that all of these definitions are correct because who am I to tell you what a friend is.  That’s for you to decide.

If we get literal about it, here are the definitions of the word friend from dictionary.reference.com:

friend

noun

  1. a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.
  2. a person who gives assistance; patron; supporter: friends of the Boston Symphony.
  3. a person who is on good terms with another; a person who is not hostile: Who goes there? Friend or foe?

When you consider these definitions, I don’t think any of them sound too inappropriate when it comes to a boss relationship.  I always cared about the people who worked for me.  They were “my people.”  Even the ones who I had performance or other issues with, I still had an attachment to them.

So, when we start talking about being friends with a boss, we aren’t really talking about friendship.  What we are really talking about is the appropriateness of certain types of relationships and activities when it comes to two people where one of them has formal responsibility “for” the other.

Here’s what I think the real issues are when it comes to friendships and the “boss relationship.”

  1. Maturity.  Being close with the people we manage requires a level of maturity to know when it’s time to be “the manager” versus being the friend.  This requires that you be very open and able to have the tough conversations when they are needed.  When one party of the other lacks the maturity to understand the nature of the relationship, problems start to happen.  For example, when the boss has to give the employee some negative feedback, a lack of maturity would sound like this, ” I can’t believe you are being so tough on me, we are friends.”
  2. Equity.  For employees to trust their leader, they need to believe that the leader is fair and just when it comes to making decisions about their people and the opportunities they receive.  A close relationship with one or more of the people who you lead can create the perception of inequity.  Even if there’s no evidence, other employees, and particularly those who aren’t performing, will point to your friendships as evidence of unfair treatment.  Effective performance management and coaching across the team should combat this, but equity is probably the biggest reason this issue of friendship stays at the surface within our organizations.
  3. Confidentiality.  Managers are going to know things that they shouldn’t share with other people they manage–not because of secrecy but because that’s the nature of the job.  Managers are required to carry the burden of knowledge about certain things that they may want to share, but simply can’t due to confidentiality, appropriateness or other reasons.  When a manager is close friends with people who they manage, maintaining this line can be tricky.  We often tell our friends things that we wouldn’t normally tell others.  But, when they work for us, that’s not an option.
  4. Judgment.  Friends like to have fun together.  For a lot of people, that means having a few cocktails.  An otherwise reasonable and appropriate relationship can easily cross lines when alcohol is involved.  Secrets get shared because judgement is impaired and then the genie can’t be put back in the bottle.  In my experience, happy hour with your work friends is great, but tying one on with them is a bad idea.  Typically, this is when equity and confidentiality problems really get rolling.

So, here’s where I land on this issue.  I think the notion that you should never be friends with the people you manage is a carry over from the industrial, top down management era.  Those relationships were about “power over” versus having a “relationship with” the people we manage.  Today, we need to care about the people we lead and they expect us to care about them.  This relationship is going to look and feel a lot like a friendship–a very good thing.  We care about our friends, want them to do well, protect them, and are there for them when things don’t go well.  That is a good model for how to lead people in the new world of work.

But, you have to understand the boundaries of the relationship and respect those.  In fact, it’s good to have conversations with those you manage about how you view the relationship and why.  If they have the maturity to handle this kind of relationship, they will respect the situation and will partner with you to make the relationship work.

 

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Jason Lauritsen