Whether or not you should be friends with your employees is a tough question, and one which has generated much complete nonsense over the years.
Here we take a look at some of the concerns employers often have about being friends with employees, and how far these should shape your behavior in the workplace.
Common concerns about being friends with employees
Usually, the main concern relates to the ‘professional distance’ that is needed in case you are required to discipline a friend. Most people shudder at the thought of telling someone they have a good relationship with that they’re not performing well in their role. It can certainly cast an awkward shadow over a trip to the pub after work.
Another concern is that other colleagues might perceive that a friend has an unfair advantage over them. Someone you don’t happen to hit it off with could feel threatened by a team member you have a strong relationship with.
The importance of cohesion
While these are fairly reasonable concerns, I can’t stress enough that they absolutely do not need to be addressed by severing an existing friendship. Nor do they need to be tackled by avoiding social contact with your team, or creating a distant ‘master and servant’ relationship.
You might think that ending friendships with employees could improve the unity of the team by removing the issues looked at above. However, unless absolutely demanded by the nature of the context, this could do the opposite. It could be extremely damaging to the morale and cohesion of the team, which is so fundamental to achieving high-performance and building a sustainable and healthy community.
The power of friendship
To be an effective leader, you need to build and sustain excellent relationships with your team, and facilitate those relationships as you progress. Far from being a disadvantage, an existing friendship could be a great help in doing this, giving you an ally in the team.
I have always found that a strong bond between team members and leaders produces the most committed and engaged performance. The expression that ‘the family that plays together, stays together’ is relevant here, indicating the need for social bonds as well as professional ones.
The often promoted ‘professional distance’ is more likely to produce compliance and adequacy. Teams and leaders who relate to each other purely as job titles are missing much of the potential power of the team and the relationship.
Make sure you exercise emotional intelligence, interacting with your team members as people, not just as colleagues or subordinates. Building strong personal relationships helps create a sense of belonging, and a desire to support you to reach collective goals.
The need for friendship in your context
The way you interact with your team should depend on your context and goals. When deciding how large a part friendships will or should play in your team, consider the following questions:
1. How important is team cohesion and morale for your team?
2. Does the team work together (for example, in an open-plan office)?
3. Do team members need to interact frequently with each other to do their jobs?
4. Do team members need to interact frequently with you to do their jobs?
5. Is it your natural personality or leadership style to be friendly and gregarious?
6. What sort of relationship is the team used to (for example, with their previous leader)?
7. What is the existing or prevalent culture of the organisation and the team?
Use your answers to decide what kind of social behaviours are most conducive to high performance in your team.
Avoiding the pitfalls of friendships with employees
While friendship can be a powerful force for good, and could be necessary in your context, there are certain issues you must take care to avoid. It’s important not to let a relationship with a team member lead to behaving in an unprofessional or unfair manner.
Team members should always be treated on merit, and all should have an equal opportunity to interact with and be supported by their leader. If there is a stronger relationship with one or more team members, care must be taken to ensure that other members do not feel (and are not in truth) disadvantaged by it.
A culture of honest and open communication with the whole team, both individually and collectively, is paramount to ensuring that all feel equally informed and involved, and is likely to dissipate most concerns about any unfair advantage.