Can Managers Be Friends With Their Employees?

Published: Dec 04, 2017 By

Congrats on the high trajectory of your career! But one of the costs of being the boss is the changed dynamics of your interpersonal relationships. Just as parents must set healthy boundaries with their children, managers must determine how best to connect with their employees.

Can Managers Be Friends With Their Employees

If you’re a manager who enjoyed happy hour bonhomie with other rank and file colleagues, you’re probably channeling the 1970s R&B band War, wondering, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” Well, how about this for a reason: two-thirds of respondents to a 2014 survey by Robert Half expressed discomfort with being “friended” by their bosses on Facebook.

If you don’t tweak your friend zone limits, you risk not only undermining your authority, but the morale of your workplace and the respect of the people you need to manage.

That doesn’t mean a manager is forced to transition into some sort of Hollywood caricature of the dastardly boss who forgot where he or she came from on their way up to the top. Just because you can't pal around with them any longer doesn’t mean they won't like you. On the contrary, those bonds are invaluable in getting the most out of the people you manage.

“When you need guidance who are you more likely to turn to—a friend or someone who keeps you at arm’s length?” says Kim Turnage, coauthor of “Managing to Make A Difference: How to Engage, Retain, and Develop Talent for Maximum Performance."

“What about when you need to hear a hard truth? Does that sound better coming from someone who is a trusted friend or someone who intentionally places boundaries on your relationship? Managers can be much more influential with people they have invested in as friends than with people who see them as ‘just the boss.’”

Some experts disagree. “The reality is, sooner or later, every manager/boss is going to have to discipline or make a tough business decision involving one of their employees,” says Greg Ward, an executive leadership advisor and author of “The Respectful Leader.”

“If they are friends, it almost always means very hard feelings and potentially a break in the relationship that can never be repaired.” 

Managing relationships with an awareness of what’s proper and what isn’t requires a balancing act. So how do you draw the boundaries?

Here are some tips in navigating your relationships in the workplace:

Covet Respect, not Popularity

Managers need their employees to respect them. A friendship can set the stage for insubordination, which compromises a supervisor's competence in the eyes of other direct reports and upper management. Don’t be that type of leader.

Avoid Favoritism

An employee that regularly asks to come late, or work from home, or demands other benefits outside the norm, places you in a thorny spot and cultivates resentment in their colleagues. Don't play favorites. As the boss, it's critical that you seem objective and fair when it comes to handing out assignments or giving feedback. Others will be watching to make sure that you don't treat your friend differently than you treat everyone else.

Keep the Inside Jokes Outside

“Don't put your special bond on display,” says Nancy Halpern, principal at KNH Associates. “Things that reference your friendship are best left for social occasions outside the office when it's only the two of you.”

Agree on the Sticky Points

You might need to have an honest dialogue about things like deadlines and quality of work. Explain your standards and expectations and that you will hold every employee accountable.

Be Consistent

Don't allow any employee to take advantage of the friendship in a way that becomes unfair to others or detrimental to the organization.

Be Inclusive

Beware of excluding other employees from lunches or happy hours, which can erode the development of a cohesive work unit. Make sure other employees are invited to social gatherings and that they feel included.

Minimize Texting

Keep work-related conversations off text as much as possible, advises Jena Viviano, a career coach. “I've seen managers text their employees, and that can get rather messy because there is a sense of casualness to that interaction.”

Use Caution with Social Media

Nearly seven out of 10 senior managers polled in an OfficeTeam survey said they would feel uneasy being friended by their bosses, and 62 percent would feel equally uncomfortable being asked to be friends on Facebook by the people they manage.

As a manager, your job is to cultivate worker connection and engagement for the good of the organization, not for your personal gratification. If you don’t draw the appropriate lines between you and the people you manage, their job performance—and your own—may suffer. Reserve deep friendships for people you aren’t supervising in the workplace. 

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