By Victor Lipman – Forbes
I’ve long been interested in the interpersonal issues involved in successful management, especially as they affect new managers, which is one of the most challenging roles in business.
In particular, the tension between friendship and authority can be a tricky balance to maintain. As a new manager you need to set the right tone. Too much friendship and you can easily come across as weak. Too much authority and you can easily alienate your people.
I’ve normally come down on the side of avoiding too-close employee friendships (which was how I myself tried to manage). “Respect, Not Friendship, Is What A Manager Needs” has long been my mantra.
At the same time, though, I’ve been aware that this approach can be a bit limiting, as there are times when friendships can be a functional part of the management environment.
Which is exactly why I was interested to read a recent Management tip of the day from Harvard Business Review, “To Be Friends with Your Employees, Set Clear Boundaries.”
The boundaries benefit
I immediately liked this suggestion because it added welcome nuance to my earlier thoughts.
It opened the door to manager-employee friendship, but did so in a reasonable, measured way. “It’s possible to be friends with someone who works for you, but you need to set boundaries,” the article noted. “For example, there may be times that you’re privy to information that will affect your friend, but it would improper for you to share it. To make the friendship work, be transparent about what you can and can’t share, and emphasize that it’s a matter of ethics, not trust. When sensitive topics come up, be clear about what kind of conversation you’re having…This way, you can maintain your friendship without crossing any lines.”
In short, the tip acknowledged that manager-employee friendships can at times be natural and constructive, but it’s still good to handle them in such a way that a certain distance is maintained.
Favoritism and corrective action
This was a helpful expansion of my “respect not friendship” position.
I still believe that overly close manager-employee friendships carry with them clear risks. Most notably these include the reluctance to take corrective action when needed, plus possible perceptions of favoritism – both of which can seriously undermine team dynamics.
I still definitely feel these are valid concerns. But effective management is nothing if not a complex discipline that contains far more gray areas than black and white. Which is why the notion of “friendship with boundaries” seems to me a useful addition to the palette.