As Jay strode across the hallway into the corner office, he was greeted by an affable, sharply dressed man in his 40s, his new boss. They shook hands and the boss excused himself to answer the intercom. Jay looked around and spotted music memorabilia adorning the walls. Aretha Franklin cover, Thelonius Monk poster, a stack of vinyl, ticket cards of music festivals across the world – Montreux, Tobago and New Orleans and a bass guitar leaning against the wall. Jay knew music could break the ice for him with his new boss. Soon as his boss disconnected the call, Jay played his ringtone - Take 5 by Dave Bruebeck. He quickly apologised and disconnected the ringer. The boss arched his brow and said, “Bruebeck fan?” Jay nodded and yes, they bonded over music. To Jay it was important to create the right impression and build rapport. Life is easier when you are friendly with the boss, isn’t it?
You may find what Jay did, sneaky but hey, haven’t you wanted to cultivate a bond with a superior to serve your own interest and perhaps, advance your career?
As months went by, it was natural for the two men to huddle together after work, discussing music, attending gigs and hanging out on weekends. The trouble began with the murmurs of favouritism during appraisal. His close friendship with Jay, made it uncomfortable for the boss to share honest feedback on Jay’s performance for knowing it may affect their relationship. There were times, Jay felt he gave away too much information to the boss on his personal life and someday, it may be used against him. It was a complicated relationship for both.
If that wasn’t hard enough, his boss got transferred to another unit. The new replacement turned out to be Jay’s friend from his engineering college. How would that play out for him, he wondered.
He was in quandary.
You spend most of your life in office and spend more time with your boss than you do with people at home. Building a positive, equitable relationship with your boss can make life easier for the boss and the employee.
As boss, you want to be liked, respected and trusted by your team. As an employee, being friends with the boss allows you to communicate freely, be privy to guarded information, share ideas and even disagree knowing that there won’t be any consequences.
Much as in any relationship, maintaining healthy boundaries can help both the boss and the employees to exceed and excel. However, a boss is a boss, first and then a friend. Here are some tips to maintain a healthy relationship.
- Be a leader not the winner of a popularity contest. Your team looks up to leadership that commands trust with support that is equitable.
- Be fair. One of the easiest traps for bosses to fall in, is when you buddy up to an employee and favour him/her over others due to the ‘halo’ effect. You will be seen as a boss who plays favourites and it may have repercussions on the morale of the team. Be consistent and professional in the way you treat, each member of the team. However, you don’t have to downplay or apologise for your friendship or be harder on those employees who are friends.
- Freedom in feedback. Ensure there is enough space to offer constructive feedback to help them grow.
- It’s important to not be taken advantage of as it is to not make power plays to serve your own interests.
- Be professionally friendly. It is okay to be friends. Care about them and display interest in their life beyond work. Maintain enough distance to not be too nosy or indulge in oversharing.
- Mind your language. The way you speak can encourage your employees to talk back in the same tone. A fine balance between respect and comfort is helpful.
- Know when to recuse yourself. In case of conflicting bias, during a performance review or reward program, you may want to assign someone else to handle the review.
- Inspire success. As a boss, your collaborative and supportive approach must challenge employees to be exemplary and do better without cutting them too much slack.
While some vehemently disagree with being friends with employees and some swear on better team support and an aligned vision through friendships, the debate can swing any way and both could be true.
In my experience, leadership is a bridge that can only be strengthened by interpersonal bonds. I have found my friendship with my bosses, instrumental in creating healthy ground for debate, discussion and sharing ideas for personal and professional growth.
In the reverse, being friends with my subordinates has helped me relate to them better and build a trusting and caring relationship that supports collective growth.
What are your thoughts?