Can a Leader be Friends with their Team?

A common question from managers is ‘Can my team members also be my friends?’

My answer is ‘Do you have the capacity to be a convincing leader and a friend?’

Being a leader is ultimately about ones capacity to inspire another person or group of people to move from one point to another. To do this we have to be convincing as a leader and work somewhere within the leadership paradigm of our people. We do this by fulfilling or surpassing the leadership behavioral expectations of the group we manage (I do not mean pander to unreasonable and self serving needs of every individual).

Increasingly, those who work in modern professional workplaces expect their managers to demonstrate an engaging manner, show a professional interest in team members and a capacity to be fair and objective in their approach to team members.

Open and consistent demonstrations of favoritism are not well received in Australian workplaces and can actually have a de-motivating affect on team members because it reaches outside the ‘fair and objective’ paradigm. For example, Sarah misses out on her promotion to work-peer Kevin who is close friends with Patrick the Supervisor. Patrick often openly speaks about his social escapades with Kevin in front of the team. He regularly describes him as a ‘bit of a legend’. Of course, Patrick is now faced with justifying the ‘promotion’ decision within the context of his friendship with Kevin. Immediately on the back foot, he is subjected to intense scrutiny by the wider team, perhaps faces unjustified criticism of unfairness to Sarah and lack of objectivity.

Suddenly team expectations are perceived (perhaps unfairly) to have been overlooked. Expectations not met or surpassed can potentially create de-motivated and disengaged team members. Now Patrick faces a problem because his capacity to inspire the vast majority of team members to follow him is reduced.

On the other hand you may argue that workplace leaders cannot afford to show disinterest in their people. Knowing what footy team an individual supports, that the eldest son is doing year 12 or that their mother is in hospital is actually very useful. It demonstrates that a manager is personable and has a capacity to show interest in others. For many workers in Australian workplaces this is a critical element to then accepting their manager as a leader. There is no place for disengaged managers.
So does that mean a convincing leader cannot be friends with their staff?

The ‘convincing leader’ can be ‘friends’ with staff. Friendships are a natural part of life. In some cases a manager has been friends with a person before they became a manager (as a work peer) or before they joined the organisation. The convincing leader, however draws the lines so everyone in the workplace can see them. The lines are evidenced by the manager’s unbiased and culturally sensitive behaviours. For example, they don’t sit in their office or workspace with that friend day after day giggling, pontificating or in deep personal discussions. They don’t conduct those ‘you have to be my friend to know what I mean’ discussions throughout the work day. They don’t sit at the end of table at Harry’s farewell dinner with the ‘great friend’ laughing and chatting while members of the rest of the table are left to second guess the conversation.

Convincing leaders have thought about the consequences of their friendship. They probably have discussed the challenges of being a ‘leader’ and a ‘friend ‘with the friend. When at work they are willing to be friendly with and show interest in all team members without favour. They are able to be transparent about their decision making. Convincing leaders in modern workplaces ‘move around the team’ like the great dinner host who ‘works the room’. They communicate with ALL team members, extrovert and introverts, in a way so that they ALL feel like they matter.

There are few leaders that can or should be friends with everyone in their team. Simply because most people are discretionary beings. They make values based decisions about friendships. However we do have the opportunity of being a plausible leader to most by acting in line with expectations of what an effective leader is. Those expectations in the modern professional workplace tend to be based upon finding a balance between showing you care and are interested, and introducing and demonstrating what we call ‘professional’ boundaries.

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