How to be the Boss and have Friends
If you don’t have friends at work, you feel alone for half your life. Can bosses be friends with direct reports? How about CEO’s with front-line employees?
It depends on how you define ‘friend’. Social buddies on the same bowling team? Probably. Confidants? No.
Don’t pretend you’re the same. You aren’t.
3 challenges to being friends with employees:
You can’t be friends with everyone at work. Some will feel left out.
When you promote a friend, others will say you played favorites, even if you didn’t. Success in an organization should be based on merit. But the truth is, it’s also who you know.
You’re more likely to gossip or accidentally break a confidence to a friend.
Some say you’ll go easy on your friends. You won’t give tough feedback.
Friends are honest with each other. But you aren’t always honest with your non-work friends. You ignore some of their frailties or failures because their performance doesn’t impact your organization. You can afford to forebear.
#3. Power gaps.
You have power, position, and authority. There will always be an awareness that you have authority to terminate people.
Some want to be your friend because you control resources and opportunities. Power distorts relationships.
It’s nearly impossible to scale the wall of authority when you don’t have it.
The boss and friends:
- It’s easier when you’re close to the same level.
- We want someone to care for us like we care for them. But, if you have more power and higher position, it will feel like you give more than they give because you have more to give.
- Guiding principle: serve the best interest of others. This includes giving tough feedback and terminations.
- Don’t spill your guts to someone who reports to you.
- Realize the difference between work friends and best buddies.
What suggestions do you have regarding a boss making friends with subordinates?
This becomes more challenging the longer you are in an organization, particularly if you had a work friend at the same level and then get promoted above them. From a wellness prospective, true social connection is key to your own health and well-being. It’s more than just “nice” to have a friend you can trust when in a leadership position, its integral to your health. If you don’t have one or two close friends outside of work, consider CEO groups in your area.
FYI – leading Alzheimer’s researchers have said that social connection is one of the most important ways to help prevent or slow down the disease. Not having at least one trusted friend also leads to potentially higher rates of depression.
Thanks Mim. I think the key here is building relationships outside of work…without neglecting work-friendships.
Also, your comment reminds me of differences between connecting, affiliating, and friendship. I’m also thinking about the difference between friends and friendly.
You bring up a real challenge of getting promoted over a friend. Man that’s so difficult to navigate. Humility and transparency might help. But, it also depends on the character of our friend who might feel overlooked.
Great pointers, Dan! Thank you!
I know some leaders who still haven’t mastered giving constructive feedback, so I think it’s interesting how you point out the expectation that we are less honest with my non-work friends. I feel it’s the ability to have hard conversations where it matters most, at home and with friends, which helps you translate that skill to work successfully.
It seems to me that, once you’ve mastered the art of constructive feedback, you end up being more honest with everyone. You’re able to deliver caring, constructive feedback, couched in intentions and framed in a positive future outlook. Clear, well-placed, properly positioned feedback always helps. And when it doesn’t, it feels like one of those things (was it clear? Was now the right time? Did I say why it matters and why I care?) was probably out of place or not thought through fully.
Thanks Stephanie. Your insights on feedback are really helpful. You strung together some words in a powerful way “…. caring, constructive feedback, couched in intentions and framed in a positive future outlook.”
It’s also interesting that when we get better at hard conversations in one area we probably get better in others. The word courage comes to mind.
Truth be told, I am probably harder on those people who work for me that I am closer to. I know them well enough to know exactly what their “very best” looks like, and expect more from them. Not sure if this is good or bad.
Dan great subject and blog. A couple thoughts.
In my smaller, private firm we had a loosely defined organization structure so being friends seemed easier. In my larger, public firms with much more organization (and Human Resources) it was harder.
One practice I discovered was that at a conference or away dinner, I would have and often buy a round of drinks then I would excuse myself. Often people say things they regret and as the boss you don’t want or need to hear especially after a few drinks!
Brad James, The Business Zoo
Thanks Brad. There’s real significance to the size and culture of an organization when it comes to the boss being friends. Your observation that it’s easier in small organizations makes sense.
Zappos is an example of a company that believes in being friends at work. I’m not sure how it works out with the boss being friends with subordinates. (Using the term subordinate grates on me a bit, but it seems to be useful here.)
I see kindness in your approach of being supportive but not hanging too long.
This is a thoughtful post (and comments) about what can be a really complicated topic. I always wanted to be perceived as “friendly” but not “familiar.” This can be a tough tightrope to walk. We Baby-Boomers were generally taught to respect authority and our elders, and I think that made it easier to draw and respect those lines in work relationships. In my experience, succeeding generations have a harder time with this, and tend to be more informal and more familiar than us “old folks” find comfortable. I found my best work “friendships” were based on our mutual passion for the work and dedication to the mission. I knew enough about my people to ask about their families and other main interests, but there was very little socializing outside work. At the same time, I worked hard to build and maintain friendships totally outside of work, which was not always easy during a law enforcement career. Former work peers and other colleagues have joined that circle of friends since retirement.
Thanks Jim. Your comment is very useful to me. The distinction of “friendly” but not “familiar” is helpful.
I hadn’t thought about generational differences until you brought up. Perhaps this is more of an issue for us older folks. 🙂 There is a willingness to be familiar in younger people. I think part of that is they’ve been taught that they are worthy. They feel equal. We, on the other hand, were taught about the lines of authority.
Glad you stopped in.
I feel a little uncomfortable with the notion «Don’t pretend you’re the same. You aren’t»
I never define myself as the title that I have on my payroll (I’m not a CEO but I’m in a director position over some hundred employees). I’m also far away from a socialistic view but in my opinion a team work is the best to have in the work place and the team work includes that we need to be «the same» but with different competencies. I have friends at my work but as I unfortunately can’t become friend with peoples that are guided by their position, I don’t have at the same level as me so my friends come mostly from peoples that I work with. It requires a high value of the integrity and transparency in order to keep an equitability and justice for all the employees in the team.
It’s been 4 years now and I never had a complaint from them. At the work place we work together, outside work we are friends. I’m not afraid to be honest and give a constructive feedback or even tough feed backs when needed and everyone knows that. In my humble opinion, a person can become friend with another person when they are sharing the same human and caring values.
This topic touches on the vast importance of networking with others in your industry (or a similar one) whom you can speak to confidentially about issues while also kicking around ideas. Having people you can connect with who do not report to you (and whom YOU don’t report to), who walk in similar shoes as yours, serves as a valuable resource and a source of encouragement, strength, and genuine feedback. One of the ways I support the parochial school principals whom I help and coach is to network them to each other through face-to-face gathering as well as online discussion sessions. They find this connection one of their most valuable resources as they address the day to day business of leading in their own schools. Genuine friendships have grown out of these business relationships, which feeds another part of human need for these leaders that can be difficult to discover in their own school environments.
This is great advice. I wanted to share my own experience. At one point in my management career I became my best friend’s direct line manager. The only way I could be her boss and her friend was to separate it. In one way it wasn’t difficult because I love and respect her and she was a brilliant worker. I did criticise her and praise her from a factual observed way and at one point she said quite surprised “wow you really can separate it can’t you?” with a little smile that suggested if the shoe was on the other foot she may let me get away with stuff. In another way if she said or did something I took it more emotionally than I did from anyone else so I did a lot of being conscious of that and taking a moment to feel it and analyse it and not act on it. I suspect what she lost was not being able to moan about the boss or work to me. We did this for 3 successful years and after 5 years of not being her boss she is still my friend, and she is still someone I admire for her work qualities as well as her personal ones.
My attitude as a boss was always really respect your staff as human beings and if they have failings help them through them not condemn them. I’m a bit hard rock cafe ‘Love All Serve All’ however now I’m in a more junior position I am enjoying the camaraderie again and I agree it was lonelier in work before. In hindsight I needed to have more friendships and interests outside of work, so my advice would be to do that and if in my position again I’d have done an expectations exercise with her. She would have rolled her eyes but it would have made the transition smoother.
Excellent article! I had a Manager who had mastered this is a very unique way. He was able to be friends with his reportees but also had the ability to talk to and council them when needed. I did my best to learn from him and follow his example.