4 tips to navigate the friend/boss dynamic as a young leader

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Building and managing relationships is one of the most important aspects of leadership, but it’s no easy feat. Young leaders, especially, are often thrown into a web of new relationship dynamics with little context for how to navigate them.

It’s especially tricky to learn how to care about the personal in addition to the professional. Sometimes it may feel like an impossible juggling act, but I think you can be a kind, genuine, and authoritative leader at the same time. Here’s what I recommend.

1. Show you care about your team members personally.

While you don’t want to dig too deep into your team members’ personal lives, you should genuinely care about the well-being of everyone on your team. It should feel natural to show interest in your team members’ interests outside of work, and you can do this through small gestures. Remember the names of your team members’ significant others and loved ones. Ask about their hobbies. Follow up on conversations you’ve had in the past. Find common ground that you share. Give your undivided attention when employees talk to you. These little things add up.

In regards to professional development, you can show your team members you care through simple actions. Give recognition for a job well done. Write a thank-you card or a note. Speak up when you’re given praise, and it’s at least partially due to someone on your team. Every day, you should look for behaviors and work to compliment. If you show this kind of investment in your team, they’ll feel cared for.

2. Don’t shy away from giving and accepting feedback.

Sometimes young leaders have built such strong friendships with team members that it can be difficult to give feedback. And let’s be honest—giving feedback is awkward. When you have to sit someone down and point out mistakes, it’s difficult, even if you have their best interests at heart.

However, you owe it to your employees to give them honest feedback—even if it’s negative. According to a Gallup study, “Employees receiving predominantly negative feedback from their manager are over 20 times more likely to be engaged than those receiving little or no feedback.” This may sound shocking, but as a leader, you’re probably a person who relates to this sentiment and thrives on feedback. And if we love receiving feedback as leaders, why shouldn’t we trust our employees to feel the same way?

Of course, if you’re going to foster a relationship wherein you can give good feedback to your employees, you have to lead by example and openly receive feedback from them. This is harder than it sounds—not because your employees don’t have feedback for you, but because it can be difficult to get them to open up. If you treat your employees like friends, they might feel reluctant to offer criticism. In those cases, it’s up to you to own your authority and ask pointed questions, prodding for criticism. For example, you might say, “How could I have handled X better?” Asking specific questions will yield better results and give you opportunities to grow.

3. Realize that you’re always the boss first.

This is hard for some people to recognize: no matter how much you enjoy hanging out with your team members, and no matter how much you feel like friends, you’re always the boss first. It doesn’t matter if you’re with your team away from work or at a casual get-together—you’re still the boss. It’s a done deal. What you say and do matters because, at the end of the day, your team takes cues from you. Complaining about work or fellow coworkers, even if it’s outside of work, is never a good idea. You must be a professional, first and foremost.

When you become a manager, you become an agent of the business. This means when you say things to your team, you say them on behalf of the company. If your casual conversation could be construed as biased or inappropriate, you could legally compromise yourself and your employer. A joke that could be fine between friends might be grossly misplaced in a team setting. Think before you speak, and hold yourself to high standards.

4. Set clear boundaries for social media.

With social media, the boundaries between work and personal life can be difficult to navigate. I work at a company that does  online marketing—most of us are friends on social media, sharing and supporting each other’s work. That’s fine, but I also realize that because I’m friends with my entire team on social media, there are things that would be inappropriate to share. I can’t treat my social media platforms as a place to have private conversations with friends or vent about work.

Instead, I treat social media as a place where I interact with coworkers and friends alike, and I carefully curate my interactions to ensure I don’t say anything that could offend my team. Most people aren’t comfortable with creating those kinds of boundaries for their social media accounts, and if you’re not, I’d encourage you to avoid adding your boss or direct reports on social media.

Even if you’re careful about what you post, know that you will have employees who post about work or complain about your employer. To head off those issues, set a strategy ahead of time: How will you handle those things when they come up? Will you ignore them or address them head-on? Will you reconsider being Facebook friends with your team?

You also need to realize that seeing personal posts from your employees may change how you see them. For instance, you might find a direct report has views or political beliefs that seriously clash with your own. And while it seems easy to separate those personal differences from the opinion you have of that employee’s work, it’s easier said than done. We’re all human. Every leader must weigh these things before deciding if it’s worth adding coworkers on social media.

It’s absolutely possible to be friends with your team, but that doesn’t mean you should treat them like all your other friends. In fact, it would be inappropriate to do so. Most importantly, set clear boundaries for yourself and your team. Think through what you deem acceptable and unacceptable—and ask those questions of your team, too. Be sure to strategically think about how you handle team relationships, and have a game plan ready if issues arise.


By ashley walton
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Comments (1)
Paige Sjoblom

Great guidelines. I feel these are great tips for employees as well. Ask for feedback from your boss to ease awkwardness. Professional or casual, remember your boss is always your boss and you’re always their employee. And if you’re friends with your boss or coworkers online, be careful what you post. If you think it will offend your boss, it will probably offend other friends.

Great article, Ashley!

October 18, 2016   |   Reply
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