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Can I be friends with my staff?

· Leadership,Trust,relationships

Friendship is constant in all things, Save in the office and affairs of love.

William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

My last post about how managers may react to the question “Can I speak to you in confidence?” drew a parallel with friendship at work and a couple of you asked me whether you can be friends with your direct reports. This post is a reflection on your questions and our conversations that followed ranging from friendships to managing virtual relationships.

I have not met anyone who did not want to enjoy work or get along well with their colleagues. But it does not always work out like that in reality. Last time, I discussed the ethical aspects of conflicted loyalties at work; how they conflict with your loyalty to the organisation. Here I will focus on how conflicted loyalties impact the team.

I wrote last time: The old cliché is: be friendly at work but don’t have friends. Friendship is a bond of loyalty. When your loyalty to your friend competes with your loyalty to the organization, problems will surely follow. Best case, you will disappoint your friend. If you favor your friend over the organization, you may be perceived as lacking judgement, biased, unethical, taking sides or worse.

Friendship at Work is Favoritism

If you have a friendship with one of your team, you share a special loyalty with them. You will inevitably display signals or your ‘special relationship’, which the rest of your team will pick up even if you do not intend it. That is favoritism. We know from school onwards that favoritism is a ‘bad’ word. Our sense of fairness tells us so. Parents are very sensitive to it. So be friendly, but you cannot be friends with your staff.

Favoritism is a set of Behaviors that leads to unhelpful outcomes.

Favoritism does not help us as Managers. It works against us. When you somehow display a preference for whom you want to spend time with, develop, support, share your ideas with etc., you are sending a signal to them and you are sending a signal to the other people on your team. All of them will see your behavior. The one person may appreciate it, but the damage - your neglect of the others – outweighs that benefit.

When you are a manager, it’s critical that you do not display friendship behaviors towards some of your direct reports and not others. You may have good reason to have lunch regularly with a couple of your team members: a shared food preference, kids of the same age, common language, love of football etc. But what will the others think who are left out? The people who are excluded do not know your intent; they see your behavior. So take an interest in all of your directs’ interests or none.

When you send these signals consistently you will create an In Group – an inner circle - and an Out Group – the others. Your staff will see your behavior towards them and the rest of the team. They will draw their own conclusions about your intentions.

It’s dangerous to have an In Group and an Out Group in your team. You may create them by favoritism or other specific treatment, or your team members may create a split. Your job as a manager is to ensure that does not happen. If you allow these groups to become entrenched in your team, you have created pools of trust. Then trust across the team will go down and, ultimately, that will drive down performance. Normally teams will magnify the behavior of their bosses. So if your directs have staff, you will create lack of trust across the sub teams and develop silo behavior.

If you take a couple of your team for a beer after work in the period when bonuses are decided, what may the other colleagues think? Your intentions may be innocent, but think about the perceptions. How would you feel if it was your boss leaving you out of such a discussion?

Most of us are very sensitive to unfairness and you should expect emotional reactions when your colleagues perceive unfairness. We tend to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions, so remember to consider how your behavior may be construed before you act.

This creates a specific challenge for leaders of teams that are spread out geographically, where some are based close to the manager and some far away. What can you do that your team member on the opposite side of the world feels as included as the person sitting next to you? How can you prevent them feeling excluded and not part of the inner circle?

This is a very tough challenge facing many managers and organisations today. There is no, one perfect answer. Most successful arrangements balance three themes:

1. Successful virtual managers do formal interactions like one-to-ones, team meetings etc., in a disciplined way.

All participants near and far get fair, equal airtime. So that may mean you have to resist your neighbour walking into your office or continuing a meeting over lunch. You will have to keep the discipline of the late evening or early morning conference call to reach your colleague on the other side of the world; and make sure you are as present and active then as with your colleague next door when you meet in the working day. Video calls can help to show that you are both present.

2. Successful virtual managers take great care about their informal interactions.

Find ways to replicate the water-cooler chat or coffee break with your distant colleague. That can mean more one-to-one calls (including video) with distant colleagues. You may have to resist the coffee, lunch or beer invitations in the office. Whatever you do, you as the Manager should bear the inconvenience. Your team as a whole is benefitting. You should organize your own time or make the necessary sacrifices to win that benefit.

3. Successful virtual managers get the most value out of business travel.

The face-to-face meeting. Business travel costs money and time – both precious and scarce resources. Use the time you are together to balance your time budget. Formal meetings including your one-to-one are ‘on task’. They do not count as time to strengthen your relationship. So regardless of who is visiting whom, schedule time for that. If they are visiting you, make they are also investing in their relationships with the colleagues around you.

Pay attention to the state of the relationships in your team, and act intentionally to balance them.

Andrew Jones is an Executive Coach and Career Counselor. Please contact Andrew directly to learn more about this topic or subscribe below to hear more from Andrew in the future.

Friendship is always a sweet responsibility, never an opportunity. Khalil Gibran