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Leadership and Friendship

I saw a great article today that discussed the various parts of great leaders. As usual the controversial element was friendship. I have heard a lot of approaches to friendship and most leaders will tell you not to mix business and friendship. Most of the explanations boil down to loss of respect or not being able to make the hard decisions.

As full disclosure I have never subscribed to the anti-friend doctrine. Too much of our time is spent at work for it to just be a job. Let’s dive into that:

Typical full week day – 12 hours

Time spent at work – 8 hours

Time spent at home – 4 hours

Time at work in a year – 1,920

Let’s factor in 10 hours of home time per weekend day:

Time at home in a year – 1,920

I haven’t factored in holidays, vacation or personal days. That would tip the scales towards more home time. However, the numbers are telling within themselves. We spend a LOT of time at work, probably more time at work then time we spend with our friends.

It is true that being friends with employees complicates things. It challenges leaders in ways we may not be comfortable with. It creates vulnerabilities for everyone and opens the possibility of abuse. In short, it is really hard to balance work and home life in a meaningful way. I would argue that it is vital to break down the walls separating work, home and personal. I would argue it is even more important now with the millennials entering the work force demanding greater social interaction of their leaders.

Let’s get the hard argument out of the way. Friendship complicates the hard discussions you may need to have. For example, performance reviews or if you have to let someone go. What if I told you being friends with your employees makes it easier…lost you yet?

Our goal as leaders is to get the best out of our employees. Remove any attachment to the job or company, we simply want our employees to be happy and productive. In doing so the company benefits from happy productive employees doing their best every day, win-win! If you take the viewpoint of the business, or what’s in the best interest of the business you are starting off on the wrong foot. Take the viewpoint of what is in the best interest of your employee. You will see that the two align its just a different perspective.

I will give you an example. At a past company I had an employee that was stagnant. Doing well in their position but they were coasting and didn’t have good prospects of moving anywhere. From the business perspective this is a fine employee. Doing well, getting paid well with small cost of living adjustments. From a friendship perspective this was a bad situation. I encourage the employee to put their resume out and find another job that would challenge them. I approached the discussion as I would with a friend. In the end the employee was extremely happy and the transition was a positive one that inspired the rest of the department. We also were able to silo their knowledge and not lose it with their transition. In the end both business and friend viewpoints aligned.

This is true for the hard performance related discussions as well. If you take the traditional leadership approach you will do fine, it’s a good approach. However, if you are invested in your employee at the friend level you are able to have much for meaningful authentic discussions. Remember as leaders we want to get the best out of our employees. That requires commitment, trust, authenticity, the ability to be there for your employee when needed, in short a friend.

Now I won’t sugar coat the friendship discussion. It’s true that some people can take advantage of this approach. They can use the vulnerabilities you create against you and make life difficult for everyone. I would argue that this people are toxic and the earlier you identify them and remove them the better. If you can change them even better but in my experience, there are some that are so broken we cannot help them. It’s so important that you identify these types and avoid them as much as possible.

Next time you think of friendship and your team ask yourself why are you a leader, what’s your personal mission. For me my answer has been to be the leader, friend, coach, mentor that my team needs me to be every day at any moment. Sometimes being a friend means having fun and enjoying life, other times it is having those tough discussions only a friend would have. It is tough even exhausting to be all of that to a large group of people. But it is possible, it is like running a marathon. The first time you start your journey it’s going to be hard and exhausting but after time and practice you could run forever.

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