Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

By David Southgate

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To IT managers and executives, the idea of being friends with their subordinates is a no-man's-land, rife with questions: Will employees be respectful in the morning? Will they try to take advantage of the friendship? Will a friendship create favoritism and disunity in the ranks?

While this kind of self-reflection may be helpful, managers can get closer to their team if they handle it with integrity and honesty. The dynamic between being a boss and being a friend can actually strengthen a team. But there are some things managers should be aware of.

"There's always a lot of socialization going on in and out of the office," said Paul Philion, a technology professional in Atlanta, Ga. "In fact the harder you work, I have the feeling the more socialization goes on in the office. And I think it's appropriate for managers to be a part of that."

But bosses that don't feel at liberty to turn a business relationship into a personal one, may be missing out on team building opportunities and may be operating under an old, outdated management model, said Marshall Goldsmith, head of Marshall Goldsmith Partners, a coaching network in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. that works with CEOs and their management teams.

"[Under an apprenticeship model] the subordinate was considered to be lesser in terms of knowledge and the boss was considered more," said Goldsmith. "And you develop this somewhat militaristic superiority in the process."

The dynamic between manager and direct report today is quite different, said Goldsmith. Managers are no longer expected to know everything, especially in the technology industry.

"So this idea the boss being 'a superior' doesn't make nearly as much sense. And the now boss has to be much more of a partner," said Goldsmith.

Potential Pitfalls

While it's okay for IT executives and managers to be friends with their employees, being a boss and a friend is not without its risks and downsides.

While some management training courses that teach soft-skills emphasize that managers should ask their employees about their personal lives, such as their weekends, their families, or their children such efforts can backfire if the manager is perceived as being insincere.

Managers should also be watchful that their friendships don't turn into favoritism.

One exercise Goldsmith advises is to rank your workers by how much you like them. Then rank employees by how much benefit the employee bring to the company and to customers. Lastly, a manager should rank their employees by how much positive feedback and reward the manager gives each employee.

"If recognition starts to be more correlated with liking than it is with performance, you may be inadvertently encouraging favoritism," said Goldsmith. "That's where you've cross the line in terms of friendship as a positive and friendship as a negative. Because then you've gone from friendship to favoritism."

Playing favorites can quickly erode trust and productivity on a team and create a poisonous work environment.The Sexes

Even more damaging is the possibility that a friendship between a manager and a subordinate of the opposite sex could be misinterpreted as something sexual and snare a manager and a company in a nasty lawsuit.

"A non-sexual friendship or partnership is fine, as long as it doesn't cross the line from friendship to favoritism," said Goldsmith. "One thing managers have to be very sensitive today is a potential lawsuit. So you just have to err on the side of caution on issues involving that."

That means no off-color jokes, comments about appearance, or inappropriate physical contact.

Managers also need to recognize that if they're faced with difficult decisions, such as reprimanding or laying-off employees, that the friendship can be damaged in the process.

Philion recalls one instance regarding a boss/friend who was promoted to senior management. When Philion had a conflict with his old boss's replacement, Philion's former boss, now a C-level manager, ended up backing Philion's new boss.

"He had to back up the management the guy," said Philion. "Whereas I understood what he was doing, it upset me."

The incident contributed to the deterioration of their friendship, he admitted.

Team Building

Even with these possible downsides, technology managers such as Warren Seetahal with S.L Horsford and Co. in Basseterre, St. Kitts, said that being friends with the staff can go a long way to building a great team.

"I have a very stern method of dealing with staff during working hours but outside of that I can be friends with each one," said Seetahal.

He's able to maintain the respect of his employees while being friends with them by being very upfront about their relationship. The key to his success is direct communication, he said. He's very upfront telling his direct reports who he is, what his goals are and what they can expect from him.

"I would say, for example, that we would probably have a beer this afternoon, but remember we have a role in the company to perform, so even if we drink and laugh and even cuss and have fun, tomorrow is another day at the office and I expect the same respect as always."

Such communication is crucial for a manager's success, whether talking about the next project or the boss/friend dynamic. "You need to just communicate the boundaries," said Goldsmith.

If managers sincerely want friendships, they have to be sincere, avoid favoritism, use common sense regarding the law, and be direct and frank. With these guidelines, an IT supervisor can create a balance on the team, even during difficult management moments.

"Otherwise you find that staff can misinterpret the friendship and behave erratic and disrespectful especially when you are providing constructive criticism or 'pulling up their socks'," said Seetahal.