Gut Check: Are You Too Close to the People You Lead?

Vince Molinaro, Ph.D. Blog

I once worked for a manager who constantly blurred the lines between her personal and the professional relationships with the people she was leading. She was extremely people-oriented and got fairly close to the people on her team. She saw us as friends and would regularly invite the team over for dinners at her home.

This was all well and good, but it became a real problem when she had to perform some of the more difficult tasks that fall to leaders.

For example, there was one member of our team who was in way over her head in her current role. She just couldn’t deliver on her responsibilities. Over time this became a significant barrier to the team’s success. She was a nice person, but incompetent in her job.

Many of us believed that our manager had to take action and deal with this employee. Unfortunately, the manager was reluctant to do anything. She didn’t even want to broach the subject with the person in question. It started to affect the morale and performance of the team.

My manager’s response? Increase the number of team dinners. She hoped that somehow if we could just all get along we would find a way to tolerate our failing colleague.

Ultimately for this manager, her inaction would become her own undoing. Throughout the organization, she was viewed as weak and lacking the fortitude to be an effective leader. It severely hampered her career.

This story makes me wonder: why do some leaders blur the line between personal and professional with the people they lead?

I was reminded of this last week while I was in Colombia speaking about leadership accountability. I spent one day in Medellin, an amazing place known as the city of eternal spring because of its idyllic and temperate weather year round.

At one point, a business leader informed me that it is common in her city for business leaders to befriend their team members and direct reports. They routinely go out for drinks and engage in all sorts of extracurricular social activities. However, she also complained that it makes it difficult for leaders to address performance issues. She wanted to know my perspective.

I believe leaders must establish a firm line between personal and professional that cannot be crossed. I am all for positive professional relationships. However, if you cross the line and befriend too many of the people you are leading, it will impair your ability to lead effectively

I’m hardly alone in this perspective. Linda Hill, a successful author and professor at the Harvard Business School, wrote recently in Fortune magazine that bosses that try to be friends to their direct reports almost always fail at leadership.

She pointed out that the qualities that make for a good friendship are, in many instances, at odds with the qualities of a good boss-employee relationship. She noted that good friends are supposed to be equals and accept people as they are, warts and all. Friends don’t check up on each other, or evaluate and try to change each other.

“Bosses and direct reports are not equals inside the organization,” Hill and co-author Kent Lineback wrote in the magazine. “Even if the boss keeps her stick of authority hidden most of the time, she will need to use it on occasion in ways that may not please her subordinates. Not many friendships can survive such status inequality when that happens.”

Think about your own team. What if one of your team member's no longer measures up? What if your organization hits a downturn and you have to eliminate roles? Will you be able to make those difficult decisions and lay off someone who has been to your house for dinner on numerous occasions?

This is another example of a fundamental truth of leadership—it is hard. Sometimes, when you rise to a leadership position, you have to change the relationship you have with people you befriended when you were peers. You do this because at some point in the future, you may have to hold them accountable for poor performance, or let them go.

This week’s gut check asks: are you too close to the people you lead?

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