Can you be friends with the people that work for you?

After posing that question, the executive I was having lunch with went on to explain he had always tried to create a family-like environment at his company. “You know, having fun, hanging out, being one of the gang.”

Now he was faced with some of his staff not performing. When he tried to address it they pushed back saying “You’ve changed”, or “You’re overreacting”, or worse. 

It’s a tough question and one that many managers and leaders struggle to answer.

It doesn’t matter if you are new to a management role or, like my friend, someone who has been leading people for several decades.

Can you be friends with the people that work for you? 

The old adage is you can be friendly but not friends.

As a new manager back in a decade that started with a “9”, I took that advice. Many of my friends were now my employees. I all but stopped socializing with them. There were no more parties, no more weekend trips on the houseboat, and no grabbing a drink after work.

Oh sure, we still did team happy hours occasionally (hey, it was the 90’s) but for the most part, I became “management”. 

It took me a long time to realize that old adage was, well… BS.

I think the reason our managers and mentors espoused that adage was because it makes the tough times easier.

It is far easier to have those tough conversations about performance or layoffs if you don’t know what is going on in their personal life.

They may be going through a divorce, or have elderly parents who are in failing health, or have kids that are struggling in school…you know, all the real stuff that doesn’t make it to Facebook. 

Do you know them?

I now believe you have to know those in your office on a personal level.

How else are you going to lead them?

  • Knowing them helps you to celebrate with them when their kid enters kindergartner or gets accepted into college.
  • Knowing them helps you connect, we all (even leaders) crave connection, we are human after all!
  • Knowing them helps you to lead with empathy and compassion.

Yes, those tough conversations are tougher…on us, they were always tough on the other person. If those types of conversations are ever easy…you are in the wrong job! 

But, it is a two-way street.

Do they know you?

To form those relationships you have to let your employees see you for who you are.

Tell them about the joy of a new grandchild, or the pain of the death of a parent. To form those relationships you have to be vulnerable. 

For the leader who asked the question… be vulnerable.

  • Tell them about the sleepless nights worrying about making payroll.
  • Tell them how you feel the weight of 200 individuals and their 200 families.
  • Tell them about the gnawing in the pit of your stomach every day as you care for your business almost like your child.

If they don’t respond with empathy and compassion towards you, if they don’t see you as a friend, but also a leader who has to have tough conversations, if they don’t rally to the mission at hand, perhaps you don’t have the relationship you thought you had. 

I would love to hear your thoughts! Please comment (or email) on this topic. Have a leadership question you would like to ask? Send me a note. I am happy to share my thoughts and have others chime in as well! 

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