In my career as a corporate executive and CEO, I paid close attention to each individual who reported to me. I knew what was important to them. I knew what made them tick. I knew about their aspirations, their frustrations, and their joys. I could tell when they were off their game, and I could tell when they were at their best.
I also shared as much of myself as I could, if I thought that it would help them to be better, or to have a broader perspective. And all of this made me a better leader.
But I did it without crossing the line to being friends. My people knew they could count on my support and guidance, and I was direct and honest in my communication. But for the most part, I wasn’t their friend.
When you’re friends with someone, you tend to spend a lot of time together socially. Friends share things with each other: thoughts, feelings, desires, et cetera, that they wouldn’t share with someone who was just a work colleague or a boss.
There’s a very close, personal bond that friends develop that says “You can rely on me to have your back no matter what.” It’s part of the unspoken, reciprocity that characterizes a healthy friendship.
And, as nice as that feeling is, that’s not what you want as a leader. If you’re a friend to one of your people, it dilutes your objectivity. And no matter how much you think you can overcome this, the reality is… you can’t.
A friend in your team will take advantage of your good nature… and you’ll cut them more slack than you otherwise would. It’s not intentional, but it is unavoidable. And the other people on the team will understandably feel as though you’re playing favorites… this kills the meritocracy culture.
There’s one critical factor that guards against the slide from being friendly to being friends: professional distance.
Professional distance keeps an appropriate line between you, and the people who work for you. You can have incredibly strong, connected, caring relationships with the people you work with, and still maintain your professional distance.
Being friendly with the people you work with is important. In fact, if you want to be a great leader, I’d say it’s essential. That’s because, in my experience, you can’t get the best out of your people unless you know them pretty well.
Otherwise, how would you know how far to stretch them? How would you be able to read the signs of stress or burnout? How would you be able to find development opportunities that are aligned with their career ambitions?
Being friendly is the starting point for trust and respect, but when that turns into friendship, the unintended consequences are counterproductive to everything you want to achieve, as a leader.