Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Being the boss is tough enough, but when subordinates also are friends, the working relationship may suffer unless you take a few basic preventative steps.
Posted September 30, 2004

David Southgate

Being the boss is tough enough but when subordinates are also friends, the working relationship may suffer unless you take a few basic steps to avoid the pitfalls.

To IT managers and executives, the idea of being friends with their subordinates is a no-man's-land, rife with questions: Will employees be respectful in the morning? Will they try to take advantage of the friendship? Will a friendship create favoritism and disunity in the ranks?

While this kind of self-reflection may be helpful, managers can get closer to their team if they handle it with integrity and honesty. The dynamic between being a boss and being a friend can actually strengthen a team. But there are some things managers should be aware of.

''There's always a lot of socialization going on in and out of the office,'' said Paul Philion, a technology professional in Atlanta, Ga. ''In fact the harder you work, I have the feeling the more socialization goes on in the office. And I think it's appropriate for managers to be a part of that.''

But bosses that don't feel at liberty to turn a business relationship into a personal one, may be missing out on team building opportunities and may be operating under an old, outdated management model, said Marshall Goldsmith, head of Marshall Goldsmith Partners, a coaching network in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. that works with CEOs and their management teams.

''[Under an apprenticeship model] the subordinate was considered to be lesser in terms of knowledge and the boss was considered more,'' said Goldsmith. ''And you develop this somewhat militaristic superiority in the process.''

The dynamic between manager and direct report today is quite different, said Goldsmith. Managers are no longer expected to know everything, especially in the technology industry.

''So this idea the boss being 'a superior' doesn't make nearly as much sense. And the now boss has to be much more of a partner,'' said Goldsmith.

Potential Pitfalls

While it's okay for IT executives and managers to be friends with their employees, being a boss and a friend is not without its risks and downsides.

While some management training courses that teach soft-skills emphasize that managers should ask their employees about their personal lives, such as their weekends, their families, or their children such efforts can backfire if the manager is perceived as being insincere.

Managers should also be watchful that their friendships don't turn into favoritism.

One exercise Goldsmith advises is to rank your workers by how much you like them. Then rank employees by how much benefit the employee bring to the company and to customers. Lastly, a manager should rank their employees by how much positive feedback and reward the manager gives each employee.

''If recognition starts to be more correlated with liking than it is with performance, you may be inadvertently encouraging favoritism,'' said Goldsmith. ''That's where you've cross the line in terms of friendship as a positive and friendship as a negative. Because then you've gone from friendship to favoritism.''

Playing favorites can quickly erode trust and productivity on a team and create a poisonous work environment.

This article was first published on CIOupdate.com. To read the full article, click here.

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