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Jan 27, 2021

The average person spends 8.5 hours per day at work. That means you spend about one-third of your life working and likely spend more time interacting with your boss than you do with family or friends. Additionally, when companies promote from within, peer-to-peer relationships suddenly morph into manager-to-employee relationships. 

Given all this, it’s only natural to see friendships developing between managers and employees who share the same daily experiences. So why do we make such friendships taboo when they don’t have to be? 

The Blurring of Personal and Professional

Historically, workplace fraternization was not encouraged, and people viewed friendships between managers and employees negatively. 

But the workplace and the workforce have changed. Professional friendships are now considered beneficial to organizations. In fact, Gallup measures employee engagement partially based on having friends in the workplace. This further translates into bottom-line benefits for companies in the form of higher profitability and deeper customer loyalty.

Yet while friendships between peers are typically accepted and understood universally, the misconceptions about friendships between managers and employees have held us back from truly embracing them. 

Tackling Favoritism

The notion that friendships get in the way of a manager’s ability to hold employees accountable is one major misconception. In most cases, this is far from the truth. 

The key is to ensure that sufficient maturity exists on both sides of the relationship. If managers have the maturity to be present in the relationship, set clear expectations, and deliver feedback with openness and honesty, accountability doesn’t have to fall to the wayside. Plus, permission-based leadership — where employees follow leaders because they want to rather than because they have to — can also be an important part of the manager/employee friendship equation. 

At the same time, subordinates must also have the maturity to recognize and respect the authority of a supervisor. In other words, maturity is truly a two-way street.

Another misconception is that manager/employee friendships blur the lines between professional and personal relationships — meaning that there is no way a manager can be perceived as fair in organizational decision-making. 

This misconception will shift if there is transparency in decision-making. Transparency is a critical aspect of all leadership decisions, regardless of whether there’s a friendship involved. It ensures that employees understand how and why a decision is made, removing any appearance of favoritism. 

However, giving ratings and awards can be very tricky when a friendship is involved and may require additional focus to ensure justifications for decisions are well-documented and truly justify what is given. Generally speaking, this is also why it’s important to have peer feedback as part of your performance management framework. 

Most relationships are architected around boundaries. Friendships are no different, and setting clear boundaries is integral to navigating workplace friendships at any level. Likewise, establishing respect for professional and personal boundaries is key to managing manager/employee relationships and prevents sending signals of favoritism. 

For instance, as a manager, you want to be hyper-aware of inclusion and ensure you are not sending signals that imply others don’t have the same level of access to your time and information. Furthermore, in the absence of these boundaries, subordinate-friends may take advantage of the relationship, responding to the supervisor’s authority in an inappropriate way that damages the relationship and causes issues in the work environment. 

It Doesn’t Always Work

But keep in mind: Manager/employee friendships aren’t for everyone. 

Maturity is the cornerstone that makes or breaks these relationships. If there is high maturity within the relationship (on both sides), it can work very well. Without it, however, it’s likely doomed to fail.

Additionally, trust is critical. Any arrangement that starts off as a “scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” type of agreement or comes about because one party is doing something unethical to help the other is also a recipe for disaster. 

Favoritism or a lack of accountability noticeable by the rest of the group will also derail the friendship and the ability to accomplish organizational goals. Manager and employee friendships require both parties’ discipline to hold themselves to very high standards, exhibiting appropriate behaviors and respecting boundaries.

While there can be many benefits resulting from this type of relationship at work, the stakes can also be very high. Missteps can result in a lost friendship and damaged credibility at work. In a nutshell, it’s a high-risk and high-reward situation.

Nonetheless, manager/employee relationships don’t have to be complicated. They’re pretty simple. When people trust and respect each other, just as in any healthy relationship, employee/manager friendships can build growth, enhance engagement, and make the workplace more productive.