Being friends with your direct reports can cause problems. You need to treat everyone fairly, and if you're besties with one employee and not others, you can be biased. And even if you're perfectly fair, you still look biased, which isn't good for morale.

But what can you be if you aren't friends with your direct reports? A fifth-grade teacher gave her students these instructions:

You can't be best friends with everyone, but you can

  • Notice everyone
  • Be friendly to everyone
  • Make room for everyone
  • Root for everyone
  • Empathize with everyone

While the teacher meant this for students, not bosses, all the principles hold. Here's what it could mean for you at the office.

Notice everyone

Management by walking around allowed you to say "hi" to everyone every day. It's not that easy with people working from home or in different offices. As a manager, take the time to notice all your employees--and let them know. Say thank you for things, compliment people when appropriate, and keep up on employees' major life events. 

Be friendly to everyone

If someone is irredeemable and not worthy of friendly interactions, fire that person. If you don't want to fire someone, be friendly. There's a difference between friendly and friends. A friendly boss goes to lunch with all her employees from time to time. (One-on-one or in a group, and the boss pays.) A friendly boss wishes employees happy birthday, asks how employees' kids or pets are doing, and doesn't yell. You can give negative feedback while being friendly--no insults or attacks. Just be nice.

Make room for everyone

Is there a clique in your business? These can be easier to spot when everyone works in the office. If six people are in a group and five go to lunch together every day, you know the sixth is excluded. But it can be more challenging to see exclusion in a virtual world. Make sure you don't exclude people. Ask people by name to share their opinions in group calls. Follow up with people if you haven't heard from someone for a few days (it can happen when people are remote). Check in. Give everyone who worked on the project credit.

Root for everyone

Pop quiz: How do you react when your best employee comes to you and says, "Here are my two weeks' notice. I've got a new job!"?

You can be angry and hurt, or you can offer congratulations. Try saying, "Wow! That's a great move! You'll be amazing!" Showing your enthusiasm for people helps a culture of collaboration and positivity grow. 

When someone is struggling, give encouragement and praise when they succeed. Genuinely want people to succeed. Don't use performance improvement plans just as documentation for a termination; approach them as a way to help your employee succeed.

Empathize with everyone

Just because your job is difficult, it doesn't mean your direct reports don't have difficult jobs as well. You may be a morning person and have no problem getting up for a 7 a.m. meeting with Europe, while your employee may be a night owl and struggle with those early morning meetings. Be kind. Empathize.

Try to look at things from other people's viewpoints. If you can't figure out where someone is coming from, ask them to explain again, repeat back what you think they mean, and try again if you're wrong. You don't have to agree with someone to empathize with them.

If you follow these few classroom tips, you can improve your management relationship with your employees. That's worth your time.