Clients often ask me how to deal with tricky interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Two of the most challenging situations occur when a leader hires a friend or even the friend of a friend, or when a leader and a subordinate start a social relationship and then experience a professional or personal falling-out.
Compensation and friendship are rarely a healthy combination. Financial and emotional commitments can get mixed up, and that doesn’t even take into account the effects of the leader-subordinate relationship on colleagues or other staff members. So if you’re considering hiring someone you know or if you realize that you’ve made a subordinate into a friend, keep these cautions in mind:
- Friends are expected to have each other’s best interests at heart. But it’s extremely difficult for people who don’t have your power, influence, and access to see what your best interests might be. Even if they truly want to help you, it can never be an equal relationship.
- We don’t want to hurt, inconvenience, or frustrate our friends. Or our subordinates, but sometimes our responsibilities require it, especially when critical feedback is necessary. This is particularly a problem if the subordinate is not a star performer. If meeting the business’s requirements conflicts with what’s comfortable or convenient for your friend, which one will get short shrift?
- Friends talk about their friends to other people. This may not be helpful to you if you’re the boss. The rest of the staff could learn things that it might be better they didn’t know, like how you keep your home, the neurotic behavior of your relatives, the way you act when you’ve had a little too much to drink, or how you really feel about your boss and colleagues.
- Friends are supposed to tell each other the truth. You can’t — and shouldn’t — share everything that’s going on at work with the people who work for you. So being friends with someone who works under you means always watching what you say and never separating fully from the burdens of your business.
- Subordinates may base decisions and actions on whether you’re happy with them today. If they’re afraid of your reactions, they may not perform in ways their jobs actually require. If you’re feeling guilty or pressured about their dependent behavior, you may start thinking more about what they need than about what the business needs. Both responses are dangerous to the business.
- When your friends don’t feel comfortable with how you handled something at work, they may not feel it’s their place to tell you. Over time, they may even withdraw from you emotionally, and eventually their distress could show up in their work. If they’ve historically been good performers, this can be a real problem for you, them, and the business.
- Because you like them, you assume your subordinates do well in their jobs. But what if they don’t? Other colleagues won’t take the risk of ratting out the boss’s pals, so you may not hear when something’s actually wrong. Problematic aspects of subordinates’ functional performance, including the accuracy of their work or how they interact with others and deal with customers, could be happening for a long time before you ever learn about it yourself.
- If subordinates’ performance declines, both of you could suffer. This is true even if everyone pretends there’s no problem. Subordinates may expect you to make the problem magically disappear, while you may wish they would magically disappear. Employees in this position are often reluctant to move on — what could be a safer, better situation than being friends with the boss? Even if you do the right thing for the business in the long run, including terminating your friend’s employment, it can be wrenching for all concerned.
- Friends trust each other, so you may not bother to learn about the other side — or even the three other sides — of the stories the subordinate tells you about what’s going on in the workplace. You could even end up isolating yourself from other crucial employees if you lose confidence in them based on your friend’s feedback.
- Perhaps, worst of all, you could end up drinking your own Kool Aid. It’s easy, as the leader, to fall into thinking too many wonderful things about yourself, based on the way subordinate friends appear to need you, look up to you, and compliment you. They may treat you as if you’re great because they need you to be that way, but if you start believing it, you can lose perspective and humility, as well as fall into making bad assessments or decisions.
How to Keep Things in Balance
If you’re in the middle of a friendship that feels compromised by an imbalance in power and influence, or a work relationship that’s turned too personal, consider focusing more closely on the work and what best serves it. Ghosting isn’t a good idea — after all, you still have to work with these people — but a bit of withdrawal may be necessary.
There’s a difference between being friendly and being friends. It’s appropriate to show care and concern without getting too personal or trying to be more than a good employer. Pay close attention to your interactions, provide clear direction for how to get work done, and foster collegial collaboration, because keeping the needs of the business or institution foremost is the trick.
Onward and upward,