While this may seem basic and intuitive, the fact is, in a close working relationship there’s a natural tendency for friendship to develop between manager and employee. And while a rapport between manager and employee is always desirable and can help create “engaged employees” and elicit strong performance, if that rapport crosses over into friendship it can easily compromise a person’s ability to objectively exercise control and manage a situation.
Over the years I’ve experienced and observed this dynamic at all levels of management.
New Managers – There’s a natural tendency for new managers to want to be liked by their employees. To some extent this is fine, as it’s preferable to an over-exuberant exercise of new authority (which almost certainly will be resented), particularly if the new manager has formerly been the employees’ peer. But if the new manager thinks he or she can be a pal, and relate to co-workers the same way as in the past, that notion will collide with reality as soon as tasks go a bit off track…and control or correction needs to be exerted… or performance appraisals need to be done, etc. Additionally, such manager/employee friendships can lead to perceptions (and realities) of favoritism, which of course is antithetical to good, fair management. In short, there’s a mindset shift that needs to take place for new managers to be genuinely respected, and ultimately successful, in the role.
Seasoned Executives – At the highest levels of an organization, while relationships between seasoned executives and their directs are naturally somewhat different from those at more junior levels, the fundamental dynamic remains the same. There may be decades of shared history… and if a manager – in this case a leader of an organization – is too close a colleague and friend, when substantive business problems arise (as they always do), this friendship has the potential to impede the leader’s ability to make tough-minded judgments and decisions. If it doesn’t, and the leader remains as objective and firm as he or she should, in all likelihood this will deeply strain or fracture the relationship.
How to resolve these very human situations? The answer – though not the execution – is simple: Diligently maintain a certain professional distance. Build rapport and gain respect, but maintain a boundary between those feelings and real friendship. This takes discipline. During several decades in management, I genuinely liked many of the employees I managed. But when I let those feelings of liking someone seep over into friendship, I know I was a less effective manager… with resulting difficult and painful encounters when I had to do what the role required. On the other hand, when I kept more emotional distance, when I simply had rapport and respect, it was easier and ultimately better for all parties involved.
This article first appeared at Forbes.com.
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