When was the last time you were friends with someone you were also in charge with?
Unless you were really lucky, you probably had a couple of really awkward moments where you felt like you had to choose between being a good manager or a good friend. The fallouts of choosing either option probably were not appealing.
Balancing friendships with leadership is a perfect example of something that seems easy from an outside perspective. But once you’re the one doing the balancing act, it feels like you’re on a thin tightrope.
How is this as difficult as it is?
Why Leaders Have It Hard
Most leaders (and people) in general, want to be liked. When you spend a majority of your time at work, you want to be with people that you enjoy working with and who enjoy working with you. In fact, having friends at work has been shown to be strongly connected to happiness.
This sometimes creates a conflict of interest for higher ups. Some of a leader’s responsibilities involve giving constructive feedback, doling out punishment if necessary and being impartial in decision making. If you’re friends to those on the receiving end of these responsibilities, they may not appreciate it and you won’t feel too comfortable either.
You may have heard stories about bad bosses who were too strict or just flat out jerks. If you try too hard to avoid being that, you may instead create a different culture. What may surprise you is that this culture would be just as bad, if not worse.
One element of that culture is favoritism. If you are known to be friends with those on your team, you may unconsciously favor them over others on your team. Even if you don’t, you may give off the impression of playing favorites with the rest of your team.
Conflict is another issue. If you are close to some of your team members, you might find it hard to argue and push for a better idea when the person on the other side is your friend. People go to great lengths to avoid uncomfortable situations after all.
Yet conflict is necessary for progress. If you keep avoiding it, you’ll stagnate your team, prolong the tension and give others opportunities to create their own stories about what’s happening.
So when you have a culture like that, how effective do you think your team would be?
What Leaders Can Do Instead
If you’re thinking whether you should try to be liked or just be the boss, the answer is both.
That third option exists if you can earn the respect of your team. If you show that you are an effective leader, then respect naturally follows.
That’s the big picture to keep in perspective. But what about difficult situations such as when you have to give negative feedback?
Your first response may be to try to sugarcoat what your employee has to hear. But honestly, they probably know what you’re trying to do. Sometimes, that may even offend them.
What you can try instead is to approach that meeting from a mission driven and employee centric perspective.
That means beginning the discussion by focusing on the purpose of the organization and how you are both trying to work towards that. That makes it less personal and the employee is reminded that he or she is connected to something bigger.
Then as you progress through the rest of the discussion, frame it in a way that focuses on the employee’s desires and goals. This is where you demonstrate your authenticity.
Employees deeply appreciate leaders who look out for them. If you let others know that you’re giving feedback because you’re looking out for their future, they will not take it personally. Instead, they will be more receptive and loyal.
At the end of the day, if you show you care, they will too.
For Those Who Must Lead Their Previous Peers
New managers face an interesting challenge in that they have to lead colleagues previously at the same level as them. This puts them in a dilemma because they are already friends with their direct reports. What should you do if this is you?
The first course of action is to set clear expectations. You may not think this is necessary because “you’re friends” but this will come back to bite you later. Would you rather risk that happening at the worst time possible or put everyone on the same page now?
Once everyone knows what you are about and they can trust you to be impartial, then you will have to walk your talk. For example, when you make decisions, explain the purpose behind them.
Don’t see this as having to defend yourself. Everyone has the superpower to instantly create stories in their heads. You want to be as transparent as possible and address those stories ahead of time.
Does this mean you can no longer go to happy hours with your team? Of course you can. But as a leader, you should be aware of how others will view you. As long as you keep that in mind, you have a guiding light for your actions.
Next time you find yourself between a rock and a hard place, see how you can get out of it by applying the above insights. And let me know how that goes!
Or if you have experienced this already, how have you dealt with trying to be friends as a leader? Let me know down in the comments!