29 July 2019

Is It OK for Managers to Be Friends with Their Employees?

Two men, one of which is on the floor, enjoying some fun and frolics

For many of us, our jobs are just as much about the people as they are about the work. Having close friends in the workplace can make an average job good, and a good job amazing.

For many of us, our jobs are just as much about the people as they are about the work. Having close friends in the workplace can make an average job good, and a good job amazing.

This isn’t surprising – friendship is a basic human need. We are social animals, and given that we often spend more time in the workplace than anywhere else, forming strong bonds with colleagues is the hallmark of a healthy professional life.

Not only are workplace friendships good for our wellbeing, they are also strongly linked with improved engagement and productivity. According to research by Gallup, those who claim to have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. Conversely, those who don’t only have a one-in-twelve chance of being engaged.

Another report by Virgin Pulse and Future Workplace found that the more friends you have at work, the longer you are likely to stay in your job, with 60% of respondents claiming they would be more likely to stick around if they had more friends.

Clearly, friendship in the workplace is important, and helps to create a sense of belonging and community. But for those in positions of power, the idea of getting pally with employees is a bit more complicated.

Personal vs professional

Traditionally, the relationship between managers and their reportees has been predominantly professional, not personal. If anything, managers were more likely to be feared than liked. But as attitudes change, employees increasingly expect a more human, hands-on approach to people management.

In place of the old-school authority figure, employees now expect a professional mentor; someone who understands them on a personal level – their personality, skills, and ambitions – and helps them to get the most out of work.

These changing attitudes are slowly being reflected in the way managers give feedback, support, and guidance, with regular check-ins replacing the annual appraisal.

As a result, the relationship between managers and employees is naturally becoming less formal and more personal. But does this mean managers should be best mates their team members? Probably not.  

Finding the right balance

Despite the changing nature of people management, the role of manager still involves telling employees things they might not want to hear. No matter how much attitudes change, managers still need to have the authority to do the more difficult parts of their job effectively.

The closer you get to your employees on a social and personal level, the harder it is to be assertive in such situations, and the less likely they are to take what you are saying seriously. If anything, becoming too pally with employees can jeopardise those qualities that make you a good leader.

To successfully lead a team, department, or a whole organisation, the most important thing is to be trusted and respected. Being liked is a bonus, but it’s possible to be a great leader without being everyone’s best friend.

To maintain trust and respect, managers have to establish certain barriers. For example, some areas will always be off limits, such as engaging in negative or destructive banter and gossip, complaining about work-related issues, or offering personal opinions on sensitive subjects such as politics, religion, and social issues.

Why the manager-employee relationship is special – or at least should be

Modern people management is about forging strong relationships with employees, understanding who they are as individuals, and what they want to achieve in their professional lives. Such relationships involve mutual trust, respect, patience, kindness and honesty.

Ultimately, the role of a manager is to lead, inspire, and motivate – and the best way to do this is to lead by example. That means being friendly with employees, but in a professional, grown-up way that is befitting of your position.

Although this approach means that managers may never become best buddies with their team, they should take heart in the fact that their relationship with employees is uniquely rewarding.

As a manager, you get to play a central role in the professional development of others. You get to help them grow, and watch them achieve their professional ambitions. You get to be the one that they turn to for advice, support and help. What could be more rewarding than that?

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Nick Edwards

Nick Edwards is a Content Writer at MHR

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