You want your employees to like you. You probably want to be able to grab dinner or a drink with them every now and then, too. But you don't want to get too close that you undermine your own authority in the workplace.
This is a common problem for leaders, who might struggle to keep their level of friendliness in balance with their role at the head of a company. In an article on the HBR Blog Network, leadership consultant and writer Peter Bregman offers a four-step strategy to help navigate these murky waters.
Worth ackowledging: Any friendship that requires a four-step plan probably won't become a companionship of lore. It's going to have to feel somewhat manufactured. And, indeed, Bregman's points are designed largely to safeguard your business interests from the potential influence of friendships, rather than the other way around.
But if you're willing to accept the limits of boss-to-employee friendships, and if you're just looking to build a more personal connection with your employees without jeopardizing your sense of leadership, his rules are a good start.
1. Make your commitment to your company's goals clear as day.
Being friends with your employees is the same as being friends with everybody--you've got to be honest about who you are and what you care about. For you, those include your business interests--including objectives or policies your employees might mock behind your back. "You need to be open, transparent, upfront, and passionate about that commitment, while knowing that some people, probably friends, will disagree with you," Bregman writes.
2. Get comfortable with strong emotions.
If you intend to get closer with your employees, you could conceivably feel intimidated to offer feedback or make decisions that they're not so receptive to. But if you're already setting the ground rule that business interests come first, you're going to need to accept that these friendships had better survive a little bit of emotional turbulence. Writes Bregman: "They might resent you, withdraw, or get passive-aggressive. However callous this sounds, that’s not your problem to fix. ... You can’t be so dependent on the way they feel that you don’t lead your organization the way you need to."
3. Learn to work in the qualities of friendship into the workday.
As already stated, you're probably not going to find your new best friend among your direct reports. Still, the first two rules in Bregman's process don't seem all that friendly at all. You can't be a tough leader at work and then spend a night on the town once 5 p.m. hits; you still need to show those qualities of friendship during the day-to-day. So what do those qualities look like, coming from the boss? "Unwavering integrity, empathic listening, clear speaking, and strong boundaries," Bregman writes.
4. It might not last.
Even if you master all of the above, the tough decisions--and sometimes the tough talk--required of a leader might not settle well with the employees in question. In the end, your employees just might not be interested in buddying up with the boss. If that's the case with you, don't hold it against them. Rely on your out-of-work relationships to satisfy your social needs.
Things get even more difficult when you have to fire somebody who you might consider a friend. Suzanne Lucas offered strategies on that front in a past Inc. article.