`Befriending Employees: Where to Draw the Line?

Part of the financial package offered to me to become head of school of an independent K-8 school was the ability to enroll four of my grade-school-aged children tuition free. Considering that annual tuition was in the low five-digit range per child, it was certainly a significant benefit and one that made the decision to accept the offer much easier.

While it was great to be in the same building as my kids throughout the day and to be so intimately involved in their education, there were some downsides to this new arrangement. For my children, having their dad as their principal meant a blurring of the home-school lines. Not only did they not have as much "time away from home" as they had in years past, but they had to deal with frequent comments from classmates, others students, and (most regrettably) teachers about their father and his behaviors, policies, similarities / differences from the old principal, etc.

On my end, it was tough because I had to determine how best to involve myself in my children's education without coming across to their teachers and others as seeking preferential treatment. I had to determine how to make decisions that were best for all students, not just my own kids (and their parents). I also wanted to protect them from the ill-effects of being the principal's kids without having a clear sense of how to do that. Perhaps the hardest part of all was disciplining my children for school-related infractions, which I learned quickly to outsource to another administrator.

Unlike me, most leaders do not have to deal with the being their child's boss and / or disciplinarian, at least not at the workplace. However, they still have to know that office relationships can present similar dynamics as the ones that I experienced if they are not careful.

One of the challenges for leaders - particularly new ones - is to develop positive, personal relationships with staff without compromising their standing as the boss. On the one hand, you want to be accessible, approachable, and well liked. You also don't want to feel lonely and isolated, as many executives do.

A strong boss-employee relationship offers other advantages, such as an increase in employees' job satisfaction. A 2004 Gallup poll found that workers who are friendly with their bosses are 2.5 times more likely to be satisfied with their job. It also increases employee motivation, strengthens morale, and increases loyalty. All of these point to reduced employee turnover, which can cost companies much in terms of replacement and training.

Yet, becoming too close can create significant problems and complications. Becoming too close and chummy can lead to others not respecting you. It can also compromise your objectivity and make it difficult for you to properly evaluate your friends and their work. This doesn't mean that you can't socialize with your people. But, you do need to get the balance right between being a friend and being the boss.

The downside of becoming too familiar with something or someone is well documented. The French novelist George Sand once wrote that, "Admiration and familiarity are strangers." William Bernbech, the legendary advertising director, similarly suggested that, "Familiarity breeds apathy." Leaders who become overly chummy with staff oftentimes run into one or more problems. These include:

  1. Decision making - Leaders must be able to make important decisions, organizational as well as individual (such as income, promotions, and responsibilities,) that are consistent with the company's values, protocols and procedures. Their judgment can't be clouded by close relationships. Even those leaders who manage to stay somewhat objective will be judged as playing favorites based on personal loyalties.
  2. Feeling dissed - A boss needs to know that his decision is final and will be respected. Bosses who make friends with employees simply cannot expect to be treated with the same level of reverence and cooperation as those who maintain healthy boundaries.
  3. Maintaining privacy - The hallmark of a close friendship is the sharing of private information. We lower our guard and say things that are not meant for public consumption. When such friendships form between boss and worker, it can be difficult to refrain from unloading work-related issues or confiding about other employees' shortcomings.

The key in this is to learn to be professionally friendly. Acknowledge the good and praise often. Let people know how much you appreciate their work and help them set stretch goals to help them feel even more fulfilled. But stop short of becoming so friendly as to blur the lines and complicate the relationship.

Remember, not everyone has to like you all of the time. It's better to lose a popularity contest among employees than to lose a position for lack of good judgment.

Naphtali Hoff (@impactfulcoach) is a former school administrator who now serves as an executive coach and consultant. Read his blog at impactfulcoaching.com/blog. Get his free leadership e-book by clicking here.

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