Why Being a Good Boss Might Make You a Bad Friend

I moved into my first managerial position when I was really young. I went from being a salesperson to leading a team of salespeople, many of whom were close to twice my age at the time. Looking back, I probably (definitely) wasn’t very good at it.

That experience, however, taught me many important lessons, one being that balancing personal and professional relationships with the people you lead is difficult. And this isn’t an issue only brand-new managers struggle with; it’s a subject a lot of experienced managers are questioned about as well, and many of them don’t think it’s a problem at all.

Being friendly and amicable with the people you manage is incredibly important. In fact, when hiring new staff, high on my list of desirable qualities is whether or not I’d like to have a casual beer with that person and get to know them better. It’s not that I intend to have a drink with every person I hire, but I use this line of thinking as a gut check to assess whether that particular person would be a good fit for our company culture.

That said, though making the distinction between boss and buddy can be difficult, it is necessary. Treating your employees like close friends can often have a negative effect on some of the most crucial leadership functions of any organization, whether you’re a new manager or you’ve been around a while. Here are a few examples of those functions, how they might be impeded, and some recommendations for navigating them and ensuring the health of your business and the satisfaction of your employees.

1. Maintaining objectivity and consistency

Being a good leader means being unbiased. Assessing quality, analyzing talent and judging strengths and weaknesses are incredibly important functions of a leader. These functions also require almost absolute objectivity. Friendship, on the other hand, does not.

Unfortunately, managers can often make decisions based on how well they “click” with an employee, even if they don’t realize it. After all, we find it easiest to connect with the people we are most like. What you don’t immediately realize, though, is that whether or not an employee’s personality and opinions are compatible with your own, they may prove valuable to your organization precisely because of these differences. An employee who is unlike you brings a unique perspective and set of skills to the table that your team would suffer without. Gravitating toward the employees we have the most in common with may blind us to the contributions offered by other individuals.

As much as we don’t want to believe it, close friendships with employees create biases that are hard to shake. The obvious example is if and when it comes time to make a managerial decision around raises, layoffs, or promotions. Although it’s rarely easy to let any employee go, it’s even harder to let someone go after having developed a more personal relationship. It’s also far easier to pardon, even inadvertently, mistakes you wouldn’t allow from another employee. Be aware of where your employer-employee relationship stands before you make the final call.

That said, positive encouragement and friendly support are essential responsibilities. Working, as I do, with a passionate team of creatives at Brandpoint further emphasizes the complexity of the issue.

High-quality, creative content needs to be delivered on time and within budget, just like any other product. But producing high-quality, creative content requires taking risks, exploring and experimenting — concepts that are not so cut and dry. My priority is to always deliver elation to our clients and sometimes that means encouraging my employees to work harder or faster than they might push themselves.

As a leader, it’s my responsibility to create a work environment that fosters creativity and the freedom to innovate. When I take a trip around the office, I try to spend some time with people I pass along the way for a quick chat. Sometimes it’s related to business (in fact, an informal conversation with employees is how two of our latest service offerings were added to Brandpoint’s product catalog). More often, though, these chats are not business related.

While it’s important to establish boundaries, it’s also important to be social and make a gesture of connection with employees, no matter how casual.

2. Blurred expectations

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” – Kurt Vonnegut

I don’t think Vonnegut was referring to managing employees, but it sure seems appropriate.
We all expect certain things of our friends. Same with our bosses. I’d bet a lot of money, though, that there aren’t a lot of similarities between the two.

I make this important distinction: Unlike a friend, a boss is someone who leads their employees by providing consistent guidance and feedback to help them improve. They help minimize risk and deliver results. While a friend is likely to commiserate when something goes wrong, a boss is someone who identifies the error and candidly discusses how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It doesn’t make me popular every single day, but it’s actually one of the most important things I do (whether or not the employee realizes it at the time).

Expecting excellence and accountability from all employees will keep you fair and honest, and it will also help you maintain high expectations and pursue worthwhile goals. When employees know they are each a vital part of a team that would fail without their full commitment, their cohesiveness and quality of work improve; they can be sure their co-workers are held to the same standard without exception.

Again, this doesn’t mean you have to distance yourself from the camaraderie that gives your team its character. There’s nothing wrong with going to happy hour every once in a while. I make it a point to join my management team for one periodically. But if you’re stopping by the weekly poker game every Tuesday night, the important line between boss and employee is too vague and you’re cheating your employees out of one of the most valuable qualities a boss can have — the ability to help someone improve by offering objective advice from the other side of the desk.

3. Breathing Room

No one’s job runs magnificently 100 percent of the time, no matter how idealistic you may be. We all need an outlet to process the routine stresses of work when we’re away from the office. Oftentimes, people find it helpful to vent their frustrations and stresses on social media — risky though it is — and it’s important to respect their space and their right to do so.

This is why I recommend not friending and following your employees on social media. It may seem innocuous at first, but it’s likely to play out in one of two ways: they could either stifle sharing their true opinion because they feel like you’re watching their every move, or they could forget that you follow them. That route could lead to the awkward situation of seeing a brutally honest post about their company, workload and sometimes you, their boss. In either case, you’ve just created an uncomfortable power dynamic.

For the sake of you and your team, consider personal social media activity to be an extension of private property; it’s not your business and not to your benefit to insert yourself into your employee’s life outside of work. If there’s an issue an employee is genuinely concerned about, they may be seeking advice through serious discussion online with their close family and friends before trying to resolve it at work.

It’s easy to see the reason for maintaining this privacy when you consider yourself in their shoes. If I accept an employee’s friend request, they then have the ability to see all of my thoughts and opinions, whether they directly relate to work or not. Personally, I don’t want my employees to make assumptions about me or bring subjects of gossip into the work place that I otherwise didn’t intend to create, and they would probably feel the same. You can always ask your employee what they did this past weekend or what they thought about the football game the other day, but social media doesn’t allow for control over who knows what about each other. Granting that control is key to maintaining a healthy work relationship.

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