The reason I was surprised (and I too am a compassionate individual) is that neither leader approached the situation from the perspective of being fair to everyone impacted by the situation; they had forgotten to be mindful of not playing favorites. In both situations my perception (similar to others attending each meeting) was that these leaders were making exceptions for their "friends." Somehow they had allowed their relationships to cloud their decision making capabilities to a point where they were guided by two sets of rules – rather than one. Does this biased approach to management and decision making go on in your organization? What are the business consequences of playing favorites?
Managing the Boundaries
Managers and executives are not robots; naturally they have feelings about the people they work with. As a manger working with others I often describe my relationships with words such as: trusting, warm, close, respectful, collaborative, and open. In fact, my OD training encourages me to have relationships that are based on knowing the other person as a person first, in order to create the best working relationship.
However, there is a delicate and fine line between creating and maintaining a professional relationship and being "friends." Many of us have observed how difficult it is for a new supervisor to be successful when promoted out of a group to be made the supervisor of that group. It’s challenging for the individuals in the group to accept the behavioral changes associated with transitioning to a different relationship with the leader, and for the leader to implement the behaviors now associated with a new level of authority and respect that comes with the new position. It’s much easier to move up when it’s over a group that you have no history with.
While it can be a great motivator and team building experience for the team to go out for a meal or drinks, it’s important for the boss to establish and sustain a social and friendly working relationship within a practical boundary. If that doesn’t occur, chances are the boss will lose respect, trust and the commitment of those on the team perceived not to be in the "in crowd." So, how does the boss walk the tightrope between friendly and not-too-friendly?
- The boss should be careful about sharing. NEVER share confidential company information or information about other employees.
- The boss should remember these aren’t your "drinking buddies," "gossip club," or "social network." Lead by example, balancing the appropriate levels of friendliness and respect that align with your position.
- The boss should cultivate and maintain a culture of fairness by treating everyone with the same level of respect and expectations for performance.
- The boss should not participate, encourage or condone conduct which is, or can be interpreted as discriminatory, harassing or sexual by others participating or observing the group. Never forget that you are the boss – not the BFF.
- And what about those office romances? Yes, this could be a separate blog, but I just want to mention it here. At the first signs of romance, the boss and subordinate should step back, make a decision about how important the relationship is, and then make the right decisions about how to go forward in an open and non-compromising manner. This is one of those situations where it is black and white – it is never appropriate for the boss to be romantically involved with a subordinate. I’m all for romance, but not when it impacts the workplace. Enough said.
Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty
Perceptions are a funny thing. Very early in my career my supervisor told me that "perception was reality." Armed with that wisdom he said my job was going to be much easier. I just needed to remember that what really mattered was how my employees perceived the situation, not what I was communicating. My job was to match my communications and their perceptions. Easier said than done! But you get the point. We’ve all seen the example of the Old Woman and the Young Girl (1888 German postcard illustration). They’re both there, but we all don’t see the same one. (Which one do you see?) It’s the same thing with our employees.
Most Management and HR 101 training programs advise leaders new to management careers to be careful not to become "friends" with employees. They encourage managers to be social, develop good interpersonal skills, demonstrate compassion and concern, but to not cross the thin line between boss and friend. The reason: the distance is necessary in order to be perceived as fair and equitable when making decisions that impact team members. Bosses need to be perceived as unbiased when a decision needs to be made such as: promotions, key projects, raises, layoffs, and cubicle vs. office. All these decisions are dissected by team members.
The number of psychologists available to help us with relationships is a demonstration of how difficult personal and professional relationships can be. Managing workplace relationships has its own set of challenges, and is compounded by the fact that we spend at least 25% of our lives at work! Naturally we want to have meaningful connections with the people around us, and therein lies the challenge – getting to meaningful without creating inappropriate perceptions.
I can just hear some of you questioning why it’s a bad idea for a manager and employee to be "friends." You may even be thinking there would be greater productivity and commitment if everyone was friends, but consider these points:
- History has demonstrated that being friends with subordinates does eventually create a negative perception and a work culture of favoritism. Even if the boss thinks he/she is being 100% fair and unbiased, second guessing will be taking place.
- The boss may not realize it, but other employees and managers will give more slack to the "friends," thinking that the boss will step in to side with the "friend" or protect them when a disagreement occurs.
- If the boss gets emotionally attached, those emotions will consciously or unconsciously influence employment decisions.
- If the boss sees an employee as a "friend," the boss will more than likely have expectations for performance that are unrealistic or inappropriate – "Gee, a friend would never do that…"
- If employees see the boss as a "friend," they may have unrealistic expectations about the company information, confidential or not, that will be shared with them to give them advance notice or a leg-up on an opportunity.
- Employees with the perception that the boss is playing favorites will consciously or unconsciously sour morale, negatively impact productivity, and increase personnel issues for the boss to manage.
- Of course, there’s always the chance that the boss and the company may be sued if employees perceive they are being discriminated against based on their perception that another employee is getting special treatment.
As our workplaces become more flexible, and our technologies allow us to be connected 24/7, it’s important for organizations to help bosses manage the boundaries. Organizations need to:
- Discuss the pros and cons of being "connected friends" (i.e., Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) with employees.
- Educate managers on the legal ramifications (personal and enterprise) when there are perceptions of workplace discrimination.
- Provide appropriate protocol guidelines for meetings that are conducted outside the workplace, such as in someone’s home, especially since we’re moving towards more teleworking arrangements.
- Provide a culture and avenue for employees to discuss perceptions or concerns about unfair treatment in order to quickly correct situations going in the wrong direction and to minimize the surprise of lawsuits brought on because there was no other course for discussion.
- Provide coaches to assist managers in creating and sustaining a healthy and productive workplace.
- Provide a watchful eye over workplace flexibility options, layoffs, promotions, raises, etc. being granted and ensure that a fair and equitable review and approval process is being followed.
- Encourage and train new managers, those promoted from within a team to lead the team, to facilitate an open and honest discussion with team members to acknowledge changing roles and the impact these changes will have on their interactions and expectations. It’s best to be clear as soon as possible about the reality – the promotion has an upside (more money and opportunities) and a downside (no longer friends with subordinates) and both need to be respected.