Manager, Partner, or Friend?

Manager, partner, or friend?

I’ve always had very close relationships with my bosses. Except for my earliest jobs, I can’t remember not having a very friendly relationship with the person who managed me. I feel very fortunate for that. To this day, I’m still close with many of my former managers. I count most as friends. As a manager, I tend to develop very close relationships with my employees too.

For me, the lines can sometimes blur between being a manager and being a friend. I realize this is not a universal thing. Many successful managers keep matters purely professional – distant even – from staff members. Likewise, many employees prefer to keep worlds from colliding. Work is work. Friends are friends. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with either perspective, quite honestly. I know great people on both ends of the spectrum.

The question we’ll explore today: What is the optimal relationship to have with employees, and where should we draw the line on the manager-employee friendzone?

As I’ve shared in previous blogs, my management philosophy can be described as “employee-up”. What that means is, rather than taking the highest level corporate goals and directing my teams to deliver against them, I tend to go in the opposite direction. I try to understand what a person wants, and then help them achieve it. Career goals, financial goals, family goals, anything. I try to help them achieve their personal and professional goals by finding success in the company.

In a roundabout way, employee-up and top-down management approaches both end up in a similar place i.e. with the employee delivering against company objectives. The difference is my philosophy, the employee-up approach, begins with the individual needs vs the needs of the corporation.

To be effective at the employee-up approach, a manager needs to build strong personal relationships with staff members. This is where we get to the friendzone topic. They need to be personally invested in the success of every individual. Team members need to know their manager genuinely cares for their wellbeing. They need to believe the manager is a true partner for them. If that trust is not present, the whole thing falls apart.

When the relationship is working optimally, it can be mutually beneficial for manager and employee. The team member has a strong advocate and supporter, and the manager has built a level of trust that inspires loyalty and opens the lines for honest communication. When a staff member knows that you are their biggest supporter, even your most critical feedback is well received because it comes from a place of caring. That’s the magic relationship I try to find as often as I can. When you can be completely transparent with your team members and have them accept criticism as support instead of indictment, you can achieve huge performance gains.

One byproduct of the employee-up management approach is that you end up being very close to your team members. Friends really. You spend a lot of time learning about them, coaching them, worrying about them. You get emotionally invested in their happiness and success. There are many positives to having this kind of relationship with team members, but it also raises a lot of questions:

What happens when you need to fire your friend?

What happens when someone takes advantage of your friendly nature?

What about people who don’t want to be friendly with their boss?

What about people who don’t have big career aspirations and just want clarity and work life balance?

What happens if team members mistake your caring for weakness?

These are all legitimate questions. And I deal with them all the time. What I’ve come to learn is that you can’t treat everyone the same way, no matter which management philosophy you subscribe to. This is the reason I find fault with the classical top-down director approach. It’s too clinical, too sterile. It’s very difficult to inspire a person through corporate objectives. No matter how compelling your company’s mission and vision are, it rarely outmatches the personal missions we are on for ourselves.

By contrast, the employee-up approach starts by understanding what a person wants, what kind of support they want, what kind of relationship they want with a manager, and then offering it to them. Some people just want clarity and feedback; others want a real partner and mentor. By starting at the employee’s needs, you can find the optimal relationship.

I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I think I still have more questions than answers when it comes to this topic. I’d love to hear about your experiences with managers and with team members. Have you gone too far into friendzone? Is there a stronger argument for top-down management than I’ve given credit for? Send me and email or write in the comments – I’d love to get your perspective.

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