Should Leaders be Friends with their Employees?
- Do not be afraid of having a friendly relationship with your team, but do not push it;
- Having friends at work requires a very high assertive communication - do not fall into the "agreements trap";
- You will never regret about having a good relationship with your team members.
Can leaders be friends with their team members? That question came to me for the first time 15 years ago when I was assigned to participate in a project in Russia. I was an assistant consultant at that time and, as a Brazilian, I was very excited for my first project overseas. The team was composed of the leader, another consultant and myself.
Because of budget restrictions and the limited alternatives available, our team had two options for living arrangements. The first was to share a luxury apartment in a great location, with one bedroom and one beautiful suite. The second: to go to a simple apartment with three bedrooms in a mid-level neighborhood.
We agreed to stay in that luxury apartment under one condition proposed by the leader: We would rotate between the suite and the room with two beds in a six-week period. But after a couple of weeks, the leader stated he would not share any bedroom anymore. He would be staying for good in that beautiful suite.
He decided to be the boss — at all times.
Despite the uncomfortable position of sharing the same room, and even worse, the same bathroom, the other consultant and I became very close friends, like brothers, and we had a great time in Russia. The boss, however, did not have a good time at all. He would be hardly tolerated, and even if we invited him sometimes for the plans, he would not be truly welcome among us.
That experience was very intriguing to me. I felt very sorry for that boss who decided not to be a friend. How lonely he must have felt for one entire year, far from his family, in an unfriendly environment.
Years later, when it was my time to become the boss, I remembered those days. I decided to not choose that path. I would treat everyone as peers, with different responsibilities inside and outside the workplace. My team would come to my house; we would party together, travel together. They would call me by my first name, give me nicknames and even call me names.
What did I get? Problems. Innumerable problems.
Friends shared their personal issues, which were sometimes difficult to deal with. Friends can also be mad at you for various reasons, and everything eventually will come to the workplace. Eventually, co-workers who become friends will feel comfortable enough to openly disagree with you in a meeting — with all the confidence that a friendship allows.
If it is not easy to be a friend, and it is not easy at all to be the boss and a friend at the same time. It is almost like being a father. And I am not going to lie, sometimes they just do not want to have you around.
After all, you are still their boss.
As all companies have tough times, the day came when I faced serious financial problems at my branch. We had only a couple of projects going, and for that reason, I had to change the consultants’ contracts from full-time jobs to variable services provision.
I had no cashflow for any more working hours from them for the next weeks until I could get more projects and more funds. It was almost like firing everyone that had no current allocation.
The curious thing is that on the following day, when I expected everyone to hate me, almost everyone showed up. Friends do not abandon their friends in the middle of the storm. They worked with me more hours than before, every day — even on the weekends. And together we were able to prospect new clients and get new projects. We even hired more consultants for the team.
Looking back, I realize that being a friend to my team was the best decision I could ever have made. Some of them became lifetime friends, even working in different companies nowadays — which has brought me great business opportunities. Not being their boss anymore has made our relationship stronger and the mutual respect has never fallen away.
And despite all theories about setting boundaries and limits between bosses and employees, from my personal experience, I strongly recommend developing open and limitless friendships with your teammates.
Menon, T. & Thompson, L. (2016). Stop Spending, Start Managing: Strategies to Transform Wasteful Habits. Brighton, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
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