April begins with the celebration of Easter this year. Easter is a time when people pause to commemorate and acknowledge human compassion and the extension of friendship to all. So let us pause to ask the question that our clients, the leaders of companies, frequently ask us: “Should we try to be friends with our employees?” The answer is . . . “yes… and no.” In other words, it depends on what one means by the term “friendship.” If by using the term, one means extending care and concern for the welfare of one’s employees, then the answer is, “Yes.” I’ve written about this aspect of leadership and organizational change management in a number of articles and several books, including Value Plus: Employees as Valuers, where the point that I focus on is that if a leader wants to have “valuing” employees, then those employees must first be genuinely valued by the company’s leadership.
If, on the other hand, one uses the term “friendship” in a boss/employee relationship to mean that lines between work/leisure activities are blurred so that the employees become confused as what roles are expected of them, then the answer is “No.” For example, if a boss decides to invite employees along on his personal vacations, if out-of-work activities are pursued with employees regularly and frequently, and/or if regular visits between family homes of bosses and employees are undertaken (extending beyond the usual social hours that might be held), then the boss is likely going too far in invoking a “friendly” atmosphere and will likely regret his inability to step back into his role as “supervisor” when that need arises. It’s similar to the situation where a parent determines that they should be their child’s “best friend” – in other words, it rarely if ever works. In order to be an effective parent one must maintain the authority that the child can respect and emulate. That can’t happen when the parent is attempting to be “a friend” – the two roles are mutually exclusive. For the most part (there are rare exceptions), the same is true for “friendships” between bosses and employees. Does that mean that the boss shouldn’t be “friendly”/ pleasant to his employees and engage in certain social events – absolutely not. But to try to establish a fully functioning “friendship” is likely a mistake if one plans on exhibiting one’s workplace authority at any time in the future.
Similarly, the same tends to apply in trying to turn a workplace environment, where work should be taking place, into a social environment. A excellent body of seminal research by Professsor Brookover is that of the study of numerous public school staffs in the 1970s/80s. Some of those school staffs in the study attempted to establish a strong environment of sociability – frequent potlucks, frequent hanging out together in the staff lounge, frequent after-work social events, etc. Other school staffs maintained friendly, sociable environments but without the ultra focus on “sociability.” Unsurprisingly, the findings were that those staffs who were focused heavily on socialization did just that – they socialized – and they were far less effective and productive than staffs who were friendly and companionable yet who maintained focus on the work environment and the goals that were to be accomplished. So, time to weigh those pros and cons and determine what “friendship” should be comprised of in your organization. I suggest a healthy dose of care and consideration extended to staff and a lessening of attempts to make one’s employees one’s buddies. It’s a good way to lose good staff members! And replacing staff members, as we have discussed in previous Lead-Zines is both expensive and time consuming.