Should Managers Befriend Employees In The Workplace?

Should Managers Befriend Employees In The Workplace?

Sep 10, 2012

In the Beginning

 
When I was growing up my father was always really tough on me and I thought it was really unfair.

I had several friends who had what I determined to be “Cool” parents. The types that tried harder to be friends with their kids than they did to be parents to them.

When I would approach my dad about having a relationship more like that of my friends with “Cool” parents. My father would often reply the same way.

“How am I supposed to be a good parent who teaches you right from wrong if I’m busy trying to be your friend?”

At the time I really didn’t care. I didn’t want to know wrong from right. I wanted to have a cool dad that my friends liked that didn’t challenge me to do well in school or tell me when I was acting like an imbecile. I mean, why in the world would a child need to know right from wrong. All we really need is friends. This is a scientifically (not really) proven fact according to my non-scientific research of Facebook relationships.

I digress.

Well the role has reversed and now I’m the parent and I am dealing with my own pair of children. They are great kids who need constant parenting and that is what I focus on giving them. Even though at times I want nothing more than to be their friend.

As The Workplace Turns

 
The workplace today isn’t much different.

We have entered a world where our entire lives are out in the open and there isn’t much that separates our work, family, community etc.

This wasn’t all by choice, we have been forced into it with the proliferation of technology and social networking. But nonetheless the results are the same.

Over the past few years I have been honored to lead hundreds of employees. Some of which worked directly on my team while others throughout the organizations that I have led.

While there is no doubt that employees are not “children,” there is a striking resemblance to the delicate balance in relationship between an employer and their employee.

Given that most of us spend half or our conscious life working it isn’t surprising that we want to have a bond greater than just colleagues with those that we work with. With so little time to enjoy social activities sometimes our co-workers are the only social contact we have.

While that isn’t necessarily a ideal, it does lead to friendships being born between employees.

As the employer this is a bit of a quagmire.

When the professional relationship takes a social turn it can create complexities for providing the proper leadership and guidance that is required from the leader.

Employee – Employee Relationships

 
Friendship among the employees is going to happen for certain. This goes back to the less than ideal work-life balance and the desire for people to enjoy what they do. It certainly makes it more enjoyable if they have friends at work. This is something that leadership shouldn’t deter, however there is one important thing that must be considered.

If employees have an overly satisfying social relationship, will they hold each other accountable for performance?

While it isn’t necessarily the employees responsibility to manage one another, within the highest performing organizations they often do.

I have found it unequivocally true that when one employee challenges their colleague to step up their game that it almost always has a more lasting effect than when management makes the same challenge. While I have only my experience to back this up, I think it has to do with the purity that comes from one employee to another that may not exist in the manager/employee relationship.

Employee – Employer Relationships: Adding Complexity

 
What about when a friendship is born between a Manager and Employee?

This becomes more complicated and it is something that must be recognized.

While It may not be possible to entirely prevent these, and in fact you may have a few of them yourself. It is VERY important that you recognize the risk associated with these types of relationships so you can better manage them.

No different than the relationship between employees, but only with higher stakes, the Manager must make sure that the professional part of the relationship is solid before allowing any level of social engagement.

So often this is where the manager falls on their face because they believe that being the “Cool” manager is going to yield better results and keep them on the inside with the employees.

In some cases this higher level of social engagement that is taking place between the ranks may yield to a higher state of awareness as to the activities going on. It doesn’t guarantee it.

Even worse, what happens when the manager has to face an employee who they have befriended on an issue of performance?

This is rarely considered when the relationship is being created, however it can be the employers worst nightmare when it has to be addressed. The employer cannot allow their leadership to be trivialized by an unwillingness to face the employee head on no matter what the relationship looks like. It is often a failure of leadership that they don’t address problematic performance early enough believing it will rectify itself. When their is a friendship it can be made worse to the point in which it jeopordizes an entire organization.

Solving The Issue?

 
There is one way that this can be mitigated and it is by no means a perfect solution.

The employer MUST properly set the expectations up front for performance. Whether a small organization or a large one this does create a clear path for communication between parties that can be a basis for any difficult conversations that may need to be had. While this is something that I recommend for every manager to do with every employee, it is something that has to be done if that relationship becomes social.

By no means a perfect science, the clearly articulated expectations and regular discussions around this can minimize some of the hard feelings that come when someone you like becomes someone that isn’t getting it done.

You know, sometimes when my Dad took me out back and played catch with me it was kind of like playing with a friend. We were doing something we liked together and their was no problem with that.

But when we went back inside the house it was still expected that I kept my room tidy, the lawn mowed, and my grades above par. If I didn’t, there were repercussions!

I knew what was expected of me, but deep down he was still a big cool guy that was teaching me about life.

The workplace doesn’t have to be different. We can like those we lead and lead those we like. But we must understand the nuance that comes with being human and we must plan and act accordingly.

6 comments
KentJulian
KentJulian

Interesting views on an age-old question, Daniel. I like that you recognize that employer-employee relationships can blur the line of friendship, but it's pretty important to figure out where to draw that line and be consistent.

judymartin81
judymartin81

Daniel,

I'm glad you weighed in on this topic. This is a tough one and inherently one that organically needs to be addressed as the workforce changes and depending on the generational thread from the c-suite to the rank and file. I think there is a difference between being a "friend" with a subordinate and offering equal respect and voice. Some lines have to be drawn I think. But the workplace culture is an important guide. Always giving this one more thought! @JudyMartin8

DaleLawrence
DaleLawrence

A large portion of my leadership and supervisory experience came from my career in the military. It is more predominate to keep relationships separate because of what was called fraternization and it's practice was frowned upon. However as you stated in your post, circumstances will arise when friendships do occur between leaders or supervisors and their subordinates. I would agree that one important point in managing these occurrences was stated by you as, "The employer MUST properly set the expectations up front for performance." I had times when I had already developed strong friendships before becoming the "leader" and the communication of roles and expectations was imperative right from the beginning. If an individual or leader can not adhere to these, then they are doomed for potential problems. As well, a leader that is more concerned about being liked verses being professional is more from an underdeveloped self esteem and does not serve themselves, the company, or their team in a professional and productive manner. 

pmhut
pmhut

Hi Daniel,

 

Befriending workmates is a two edged sword - when you are perceived as friend, you will lose some or part of your authority. Rare are those who accept the authority of a friend.

danielnewmanUV
danielnewmanUV moderator

 @judymartin81  @JudyMartin8 A lot of great points here Judy.  Bottom line is this can't be ignored as our lives both professionally and socially continue to converge. 

judymartin81
judymartin81

 @danielnewmanUV  @JudyMartin8 I agree that more discussions need to take place. As I like to call it - the "work-life merge " is happening. I think the way that managers respond to this needs to come from their more intuitive side. We're going to need more 'human" leaders  - how to define that ? Another tough one.. great blog.

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