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How to balance workplace friendship with professionalism

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After more than 36 years of coaching and cultivating remarkable basketball teams, Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina had achieved legendary status. Yet one of his primary mentoring and managerial philosophies wasn’t to tower over his athletes or scare them into performing. It was to care.

In fact, one of his former team members remembered him by stating he didn’t just get a coach for four years. He got a friend for life.

As a team leader, would your colleagues say the same? Would you want them to? It’s an uncomfortable question for many people on their way up the corporate ladder: Should they become friends with co-workers? Should they keep an air of distance?

In my years of building teams and guiding others, I’ve found that friendship on the job is a bonus. When teammates feel deeply connected, they build trust faster, exhibit higher levels of creativity and feel more secure in their roles. They also dive into work with more positive attitudes because they know you don’t see them as replaceable units, but as people you care about.

Honing a people-first approach

This isn’t to suggest that you should treat teammates like university buddies. Rather, you should see direct reports as people first and seek to form bonds that extend past quarterly meetings and the documents on your shared drive. After all, companies with empathy at their core tend to rise to the top.

Having work friends can be tricky, however. When you have lots of teammates but unequal closeness depending upon the worker, you might be accused of playing favorites. Consequently, you need to be open to finding connections with everyone — even people you don’t naturally “get” (at least, not at first).

Another problem with office friendships is this: If you constantly hang out with your closest chums, you risk alienating people you like but perhaps don’t have as much in common with. The way around that issue is to save the friendly, casual banter for group meetings so no one feels left behind.

Building real friends when you’re the real boss

Is being able to call your core team of employees friends something you’re striving for? Try the following strategies to form stronger affiliations:

1. Temper your friendship bonds with boundaries. Being friends with someone at work doesn’t mean you should gab about personal life details for 40-plus hours a week. Make sure to build boundaries into your office relationships. You’ll set the tone that you’re friendly and interested in everyone as a person but still the one in charge.

Don’t be afraid that your employees will feel like you’re somehow not showing authenticity, either. A recent study suggests that when leaders maintain a “work first, personal life second” attitude, their staffers feel more engaged. Be available for friendly interactions, but don’t lose sight of your role.

2. Dive below the surface occasionally. You’ll never get to be friends with anyone if you aren’t willing to meet people where they’re at. See them for who they are from a holistic point of view; it’s the only way to tap into your empathy and lead with compassion.

If you’re having trouble going all-in but are determined to try, keep practicing. Some leaders find it tough to be vulnerable or to get to know their teams. Again, remind yourself that it’s OK to learn a little about the folks you see day in, day out. Ironically, many teams bonded more when they were forced into remote work because of the pandemic and ended up sharing their homes, pets and decor via Zoom.

When I was running a team of 35, it became difficult to connect with everyone on a regular, meaningful basis. However, it was a priority for me to have them all understand that I cared about them, trusted them to do their best work, and wanted and valued their ideas.

To convey this, I set up randomly assigned “pods” where I grouped people into mini teams. I met with the pods each week, and the agenda was simple: How can we each add value to each other’s work?

A nice evolution was that it also quickly led to conversations about how we could add value to each other’s lives. We would all do a check-in at the beginning to get a sense of where everyone was at. It was a simple check-in where people assigned themselves a color — green, yellow or red — and they were free to either state their color or talk about why they were in that state.

This helped set the tone for how I could approach them later: Whether they were receptive or not, I could understand why and have the conversations that helped me get to know them better.

3. Schedule time for group socialization. An excellent way to get chummier is through structured social time. For example, I set up weekly tactical one-on-ones with direct reports. We keep those meetings all about work and nothing else. However, during special monthly one-on-ones, my employees can chat freely about their career development dreams, and those meetings frequently lead to personal discoveries.

It’s a shame Gallup research showed just one-fifth of workers said they’d had a single goal-oriented discussion with a supervisor in half a year. Be the manager who bucks that trend. At the same time, pull together more laid-back gatherings where teams can discuss anything they’d like.

After my team’s color check-ins, for instance, we also went around the room to discuss a topic — whether work-related or personal — that was submitted by one team member the day before. We became tighter units because of the trust and vulnerability shared in these pods. And even though I changed the pods every three months, the friendships and camaraderie lasted.

Friendships don’t need to stop because you’re in charge. Care about the people you manage, and you’ll find out that it’s a winning decision that can be the difference between good leaders and great ones.

 

Brit Booth is a marketing expert with extensive experience in leading creative teams, brand building and thought leadership. She has held leadership positions in marketing departments across a variety of companies, most recently Perfect Day and Chewse.

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