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Why Management Boundaries Matter

How close or distant should a manager be?

Key points

  • At its core, management is about relationships.
  • Getting too friendly with employees, however, can lead to management problems.
  • Managers are best served by maintaining some distance and establishing clear boundaries.
KrakenImages / Unsplash
Source: KrakenImages / Unsplash

I recently had a conversation about a situation that reminded me of an often-neglected management problem. It involved a manager who wanted to be great friends with everyone, which on the face of it may seem to be a good thing. But the reality was, it wasn't. It caused problems.

This manager tended to get too close to clients, which was great when everything was going smoothly but led to hurt feelings when the normal ups-and-downs of management-client relationships set in. With employees he tended to be more a pal than a boss, so when authority had to be exercised it became awkward, with equal measures of surprise, hurt feelings and bad will all around.

Relationships need clarity

Management at its core is about relationships. (I should clarify here that for purposes of this post I'm not talking about romantic relationships—which in a management context can lead to all kinds of problematic places including harassment—but simply about working friendships of varying degrees of closeness.) Like all relationships, managerial ones need boundaries: how close or distant we should be; what is appropriate and what isn't; are we colleagues, friends, or some mixture of the two? From a management perspective, while it's always tempting to become close to people we genuinely enjoy, I'd argue strongly that we're actually best served by keeping a bit of distance, establishing firm boundaries, and not crossing them. A good manager should want rapport and respect, not a best buddy.

Why? There are numerous solid reasons. Perceptions of favoritism from other employees easily arise. Objectivity is lost. It's awkward at best when performance issues occur and control is called for. If we're pals first and foremost, in all likelihood we won't be as fair (or rigorous) when it comes to exercising managerial authority.

Blurring the lines

I've always been an advocate of a somewhat psychological approach to management; if we accept that management is about relationships, why wouldn't psychological factors matter? Yet in all my MBA studies (admittedly these were completed back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth), I never heard the word "psychology" mentioned once. Though I probably heard the word "control" mentioned 6,000 times. Actually, the notion of "boundaries" kind of connects the two worlds. Establishing appropriate boundaries is an aspect of control, while at the same time it also has a psychological component as an element of productive relationships.

This is where our friend who was described at the outset got into trouble. He had no management boundaries. He liked being great friends with all. Which was a perfectly functional approach when times were good and relationships were in equilibrium. But was a perfectly dysfunctional approach when times were bad and relationships were out of balance.

During my decades in management, I saw managerial relationships, including at times my own, blurred on many occasions. I don't believe this was ever a good thing.

If readers have thoughts or comments on this boundary issue, feel free to contact me to continue a dialogue on Twitter or LinkedIn.