As a CEO, I'm a firm believer that employers and employees should have friendly, heartfelt relationships based on mutual respect. If I didn't, I wouldn't want to go to work in the morning. I'd rather be happy than otherwise, and enjoying the company of the people I spend much of my time with contributes greatly to that.
I believe with equal firmness in clear-cut boundaries. Your relationships with your colleagues should never interfere with your job itself. They should be a motivation rather than a distraction. The power imbalance of the employer-employee relationship usually causes us to focus on the potential plight of employees, but employers can be taken advantage of as well.
Here's how to know if an employees is cloaking themselves in your authority to satisfy a hidden agenda:
They're afraid to disagree or voice concerns.
Good executive teams know how to deliberate over important decisions. They try to reach a point where everyone agrees, but realize that this ideal is impossible to achieve 100 percent of the time.
When they don't agree, they abide by a management principle known as disagree and commit. Once a decision is arrived at, that is, everybody moves forward as a unit regardless of individual doubts.
It's a powerful, elegant solution to a vexing human problem. Occasionally, however, executives with private worries will hold onto them and even share them with employees who work under them.
Let's take an executive named Paul. The executive team had made a decision that Paul disagrees with and that he knows will be unpopular with his own team. He commits publicly to moving forward, but privately his misgivings gnaw at him. Paul means well, but he dislikes confrontation and hates disappointing people. He'll cloak himself in your authority by telling his team that you're responsible for the decision. They're doing X because the CEO wants it that way.
Paul might do this with decisions he agrees with or even decisions he was primarily responsible before. This puts his employees in an awkward position. They wonder: Can I disagree with X or do I have to shut my yap? Do I have to worry about politics? Will the CEO question my loyalty if I voice my concerns?
They come to you with hypothetical situations.
Now let's take a non-executive named Nathan. Nathan's is a climber; he has his eyes on the top position and is very vocal about his opinions. He has a habit of being in the middle of every controversy.
Nathan will come to you and ask you to grab a bite or a drink with him. His motives--which he may not even be aware of--run deeper than enjoying some time with you. In a very roundabout, rambling way, he'll bring up a conflict he's actually in but describe it as hypothetical.
He'll lead the discussion so that you begin saying things he wants to hear. He might not like everything you say, but that doesn't matter. He'll hold onto the things he likes and ignore the things he doesn't.
The next day, he'll go to his manager or whomever he's in the conflict with and reignite the debate cloaked in your authority. He'll mention what you said in support of his position as if you were taking his side, when you didn't even realize there were sides to take.
They go out of their way to place blame on others.
Jodie's been recently fired. She was at one point a valued employee with a memorable personality, but it just didn't work out and her manager decides to let her go.
She'll contact you with an almost desperate wish to tell her side of the story. She'll usually use those very words. She thinks of you as a friend, and it bothers her that you might have a bad opinion of her. She wants to set the record straight.
Jodie is trying to cloak herself in your authority to lessen the sting of being fired. She wants to take a parting shot at the people she views as responsible for her present pain. It's understandable, but let her know gently that it would be an unnecessary waste of time for both of you.
Tell Jodie you like her and that you have good memories of your working relationship. Does she really want to relitigate this right now? You've accepted that her manager's decision was best for the company and you're sure that Jodie will flourish elsewhere. You're happy to provide a recommendation; there's no call to complexify matters by arguing for one side or the other.
In all three of these examples, your employees are hurting themselves by not taking ownership of their dilemmas and hoping you'll unwittingly share their burden. Watch out for this type of behavior and gently but firmly but a stop to it whenever you see it occurring.