People are built to be part of a group and have friends. But in the office, friendship can be complicated, especially if you're the one in charge. In most cases, you're better off if employees feel good around you but give the title of "best buddy" to someone else.

The need for some distance

Not getting too involved with workers can help employers maintain the psychological perception of hierarchy. While you and your workers still can be wonderfully cordial and cooperative, democratically tossing ideas back and forth, everybody knows you're in a different camp based on your experience and skills and, at the end of the day, you clearly call the shots. Put another way, the very nature of your job requires you to set aside the equal authority friendship demands. Provided you temper the hierarchal structure with good operational transparency, clearer boundaries can erase confusion for the employee about what his or her roles and responsibilities are. From that perspective, firm lines are positive and might even facilitate greater efficiency.

Distance also makes it harder for workers to claim you play favorites--that's particularly important in a larger company where it's logistically impossible to be friends with everyone.

A different world means bosses can't be cut off

But employees don't just need role clarity and a sense you're fair. Research increasingly shows that, for reasons of both economy and FOMO, workers don't feel comfortable taking breaks or clocking out and are working long hours. Whereas before they could rely on activities and relationships outside of work to fulfill them and build their self-worth, now they have to rely on what happens in the office, where they spend the bulk of their time. More than anything else, including perks like vacation or bonuses, workers want their jobs to give them a real sense of direction and personal purpose.

And what offers that? Relationships. Friendships. The chance to give and receive empathy as they make valuable contributions.

Now consider too that trust motivates people to work. When people have a sense of who you are and what you're aiming for, trust is easier for them to give, and they become more willing to help you. They do what you say because they know you enough to respect you, not because you're forcing them to. And, in fact, employees in high-trust organizations are 11 times more likely to call their company innovative as compared with competitors.

So bosses must, to some degree, extend their hands in camaraderie. The more they come off as distant authoritarians, the more they encourage dissatisfaction, suspicion, and poor performance and, in turn, turnover.

Finding the sweet spot 

Given the above, the best bosses are empathetic leaders who are involved in their employees' lives without getting hopelessly entangled. They express genuine interest and support and learn something about who each employee is, but they don't get overly personal, and they remain willing to fly solo and act with confident decisiveness. Their communications are simultaneously firm and compassionate.

If you're not close enough to your workers,

  • Ask more questions about their opinions, hobbies, and thought processes.
  • Volunteer information about yourself, particularly through storytelling.
  • Establish an open-door policy and make your contact information readily available.
  • Trust them with stretch projects.
  • Present them with other opportunities in which you can do some mentoring and spend a little time with them.
  • Listen to learn, not to reply or express your own knowledge.
  • Say thank you and express gratitude, being precise in your language about what you appreciate.
  • Be as positive as you can. People are drawn to people who are upbeat and energetic.
  • Offer reliable information and updates about projects and the status of the company.
  • Show emotion. Mirror neurons in the brain mean that people will feel what you show, so being in touch with your feelings and not hiding them facilitates empathy.

If you're too close to your workers,

  • Set stricter office hours.
  • Set up clear agendas so it's harder for conversations to veer off task.
  • Politely decline more invitations to get together outside of work.
  • Communicate role expectations clearly and reiterate them during reviews.
  • Tell workers in the moment when conversations have become too personal and it's no longer appropriate.
  • Give explanations framed in terms of the company ahead of yourself.
  • Make simple changes to the environment that clarify boundaries, such as putting your desk between you and your workers in a one-on-one meeting.

As a leader, you have to respect both your duties and the people you guide. While you'll attract more flies with honey, the office shouldn't become a sticky mess. Be honest with yourself about yourself and your culture, and then make whatever moves are needed to get better balance.