With Martin G. Moore

Episode #14

Friendly But Not Friends: Appropriate leader relationships

The key questions here is, how do you strike the balance between maintaining professional distance, while establishing a trust based, caring relationship with your people? In this episode I’ll answer this question by covering the following:

  • Outlining what type of relationships you should try and create (I’ll give you some examples to demonstrate these points)

  • A classic insight from author Jeffrey J Fox on who you should spend most of your time focusing on, and why this can sometimes be problematic

  • The dynamic of a professional relationship when you’re leading a friend, and the potential outcomes of this – some good points in here about unconscious concessions

  • What it looks like to be a friendly leader and some key points on how to create these friendly relationships without crossing the line

  • How to behave at work functions such as Christmas parties (which is very appropriate for this time of year!) when you’re a leader – I’ll give you some of my favourite rules of thumb that have worked for me for years

  • All of this doesn’t mean having an ‘in the office’ relationship only – sometimes connecting outside of the office environment is important for a relationship, so I’ll talk about when those times are

  • I’ll then delve into romantic relationships in the workplace – so the ramifications if they go sour (I use a few high profile examples here that are quite interesting), the potential imbalance in power dynamic and what to watch out for if you do decide to date a co worker/boss/subordinate etc.

The free resource for this week is ‘The Dos and Don’t’s of Appropriate Leader Relationships’, which should really help you with drawing a line in the sand. You can download this resource below!

This episode is one to mull over in the coming days. When you first listen to it you may think, ‘But I met my wife at work!’, or ‘I met some of my best friends at work!’, and that’s great, I’m not saying it doesn’t work 10/10 times. What I’m doing in this episode, is showing you the boundaries, the ramifications of different decisions, and what are in my opinion, the best types of relationships to create if you want to be able to lead your team effectively.


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Episode #14 Friendly But Not Friends: Appropriate leader relationships

How do you as a leader set the right boundaries on your work relationships? How do you strike the balance between maintaining professional distance while establishing a trust based, caring relationship with your people?

  • We’re going to start by looking at what type of relationship you’re trying to create and I’ll give you some examples of this.

  • We’re going to spend a little bit of time on this, because I think it’s really important to understand what the object of the exercise is.

  • We’ll then talk briefly about the power dynamics that you wield as a leader and this topic couldn’t be complete without delving into romantic relationships in the workplace.

So let’s get into it.

What does an appropriate leader relationship look like?

Well first of all, it’s gotta be one that enables you to remain focused on the object of the exercise. You’re paid by an organisation to create value, but you also have a duty of care to your people – and this means all the people in your charge, not just the ones you like or the ones you identify with. Now, you won’t get on or identify equally with everyone in your team, it’s just impossible. But if you let personal friendships develop without that professional distance the rest of your people are going to see you playing favourites.

As a leader this can be problematic enough. As Jeffrey J. Fox says in his excellent book How to Become a Great Boss, “You need to spend 90% of your time with your best people.” Even though this is totally appropriate, it can look like favouritism to those who aren’t in a high performing group. The last thing you need is to give weaker performers, and every organisation has these, a legitimate excuse for the inevitable claims of leader favouritism. So you need to exercise really good judgements without fear or favour, and as a leader that’s your job. Developing friendships with your people inhibits your ability to do this and to maintain the respect before popularity mantra that I hope by now all of you are trying to live by. The bottom line is you wanna be friendly but not friends.

Now the vast majority of us are driven by the human need for affiliation, but for a leader this can become quite dangerous as it can morph into the need to be liked by everyone. It can push a leader over that line from being friendly to wanting to develop deep friendships. But if you try to lead friends, everything becomes just that little bit harder:

  • Both of you will unconsciously make concessions for each other due to the nature of the friendship.

  • When you’re leading a friend, you’ll be more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt in any issue that arises.

  • As a follower, a friend will be more likely to take liberties with you as their leader.

  • Ultimately, it just really clouds your judgement.

So for example, appointments that aren’t warranted or justified by your friend’s experience, capability or track record are often given just because of the fact that the friendship exists.

What it means to be friendly as a leader

Well first of all, you take a genuine and appropriate interest in what’s going on in your people’s lives. So for example, you know the names of their spouses and children, which is especially important for your direct reports and any high potential leaders. You know where the spouse works, you know where the children go to school. You know what their hobbies and interests are, you know how they spend their weekends. You understand what their dream job and ultimate career goals are. You know what things they value most. You know what their preference for working arrangements is, so for example do they like to start early and finish early or start late and work late, etc. And you know what days they do the kids run. This way you can identify a problem outside of work when you see a change in patterns or behaviours that can affect work performance and you’re in a position to have that conversation with them.

But remember, you’ve got to be prepared to share a joke. You’ve got to appropriately engage in non-work discussions, so things like news and current affairs of the day, sporting results and so forth. But importantly, you always have time to listen to them- once again, appropriately. You don’t want them sucking up all your time on non-work related matters.

Staying in the space of being friendly enables you to show care and concern for your people, for you to be open and transparent and to really get the team firing on all cylinders. But once you cross a line from friendly to being friends, the work of leadership becomes exponentially harder. It’s difficult enough to make a decision that affects someone’s life regardless of how sensible or necessary that decision may be. You don’t want to increase your changes of avoidance and you don’t want to make it harder for you or for the individual involved. If you become friends with people and have deeper relationships, that’s exactly where you end up – but if you manage to draw the line at friendly, it can never drift into any of the more insidious behaviours that might rise to favouritism, discrimination and even as far as sexual harassment. The higher up you go, the more this can come into play.

Let’s take a look at few common examples just to demonstrate what friendly but not friends actually looks like. Things like Christmas parties and social functions are a classic. Alcohol and in some industries recreational drugs are consumed at “work functions”. If you pardon the pun, these can be a hotbed for sexual harassment claims. Prior to any of these social style work functions, you have to make it clear to your people that they’re still governed by the rules of the organisations. For example, a code of conduct still applies, as do the organisational values such as they are.

As a leader, your trick is to enjoy yourself, but not too much, so always stay in control. Great rule of thumb I have, don’t be the last to leave. Now, if you already have appropriate relationships in place your people are unlikely to let their guard down completely in this type of environment. If you leave early, you then let your staff have the chance to relax and that’s good for everyone. For the last many years my Christmas party tactic has always been to drop in for couple of hours early on, have a few drinks, chat to the bulk of the people and particularly people I haven’t had a chance to get too much during the year, and then to leave with my favourite parting words of course to the senior people who where left there, “Don’t do anything that HR can’t fix on Monday.” But if you’re in doubt about the way you can behave at these types of functions just try this little test. Think to yourself, “Would this be okay if I did it in the office at 10 AM on Monday morning?”

There’s a range of other situations you have to think through and how you’re gonna handle them. For example, just the simple fact that sometimes you have to travel for work with colleagues. There are team building events, so offsite meetings. There are social get togethers, and this can be particularly difficult if you work in a more remote location or a small town where the boundaries between the leaders and their teams are blurred. If you must go to a Sunday afternoon barbecue at someone’s place, the rules still apply. Familiarity breeds contempt, and as the mystique of you as a person is broken down, so is, at least at some extent, the level of respect and awe in which you’re held. So being transparent and open are incredibly important as attributes of a great leader, but that doesn’t mean your people should know all about your private business, nor should you be airing your dirty laundry with them. Trust me, your people don’t need to hear your messy divorce or how your husband doesn’t satisfy you anymore or how you wish you had your time over.

How to connect with your people appropriately

Now, having said all of that, connecting with your people outside of the office environment is actually quite important for the relationship. But it’s the frequency with which you do this that makes a difference. So it’s really a good idea to occasionally take one of your good people out for lunch or for coffee or something, just so that you can have a discussion in a less formal environment. I find that meetings in cafes are crucial to ensure you can both let your guards down and adopt a more informal tone. I find it particularly useful if there’s an issue that I’ve been talking about in the office environment with one of my leaders and I can’t seem to get through to them. Going to a more informal setting can have a sense of, “Look, this is a little bit off the record, I’m in your corner and I need you to hear these messages.” Sometimes it’s really good if you need to amp up the directness of what you’ve been telling one of your people.

Now, a little while ago when things got quite desperate with one of my direct reports and it was clear he simply wasn’t listening to all guidance and advice and feedback that I’ve been giving him. One Friday morning I said to him, “Cancel your afternoon meetings? We’re going for steak and a beer, I need to have a talk to you.” Now, when we had that meeting off site, he didn’t hear anything that he hadn’t heard before, but I was able to effectively use the change of scenery to lean in across the table and say, “Mate, this is getting really serious now. How are you going to deal with this and move forward?” As I’ve said before, frequency matters here. If this is something you do occasionally for impact, it’s a fantastic thing to do. But if you’re doing this three or four times a week, it sets up a different dynamic and it becomes the rule, rather than the exception and sets the relationship on a completely different footing. So just think about using this sparingly.

I hope it’s given you a pretty good idea of what the distinction is between being friendly but not friends with your people. But just before we move on I just want to give you a quick reminder about the power dynamic. It’s probably worth going back and listening to Episode 5 of this podcast series about the use of power and how a leader can use power wisely. If you wield power appropriately though it can be extremely positive as an attribute. Ironically, this will make you more attractive to many of the people around you. The first thing that you need to recognise is this power dynamic, and don’t get carried away with yourself.

Before I started my first CEO role, a mentor of mine said to me, “Just remember, all your jokes are now going be a little bit funnier.” He was right. The higher up you go the more this can come into play, so be aware of those who want to ingratiate themselves with you for whatever reason. We’ll talk more about the power dynamic in just a minute.

The risks of workplace romances

As I’ve said earlier I can’t really treat this subject without talking about romantic relationships in the workplace, and this is a really tough one. Having seen others deal with this over the years and the ramifications for them, personally I like to err on the side of caution. I’ve come to the view over the years that you simply should not have romantic relationship in the workplace. I know this is gonna be a little bit controversial and I know some of you out there are currently in a relationship in your workplace or you have been in the past. Before the end of the podcast, I’m gonna give you people just a little bit of guidance about how you can handle that so that it doesn’t come back on you and bite you.

I want to be really clear here, the view that I’ve come to is in no way a moralistic or value judgement style of view. It’s simply the practical wisdom of seeing the damage that can be done to people’s careers through ill-advised workplace romances. Tony Soprano famously once said, “I never shit where I eat.” In other words, don’t mix your pleasure with your business. Now when I was younger, I certainly didn’t understand the ramifications, but for the last 20 odd years I’ve become increasingly convinced that as a leader, it’s a pretty risky move to have a romantic relationship at work. Now, I was fortunate enough to learn this by observing others, rather than stepping on these landmines myself. But we see so many people fall foul of this and there’d been a lot of really high profile cases just in Australia over the last year or two.

For example, Tim Worner, Chief Executive of Channel Seven in Australia, was dragged through a trial by media for a year after having an affair with an executive assistant. Fortunately for Tim, he must be outstanding at his job, because the company backed him all the way, despite what could only be described as a savaging in the financial press. This was admitted by both parties as a consensual relationship which went south when the relationship soured. As they say, it’s all fun and games until someone puts an eye out.

John Neal, CEO of QBE, had his bonus docked by the board to the tune of half a million dollars, because he didn’t declare a romantic relationship with his assistant in a timely enough manner. Now I didn’t feel too sorry for John, because he still pulled in over three million dollars that year. Here’s an interesting one, Gil McLachlan, the Chief Executive of the Australian Football League, sacked two staff members for having what he would consider to be inappropriate relationships. Apparently they defined inappropriate as, the affairs were extramarital for the individuals involved, so the company actually applied a moral value judgement there. The romantic interests where with other employees of the AFL and these people were also more junior than they were. Now this is getting a little bit crazy, so you can see why we might be best to follow my advice to err on the side of caution.

Organisations increasingly seek to intrude in the personal decisions that you make. You have to be really careful how this can affect your career as a leader. But it’s always gonna be tempting to start a romantic relationship, because you spend so much time in such close proximity with your workmates, peers and boss. The implications though, of having a romantic relationship in your workplace are many.

Remember, first of all, it’s quite often a power in balance. If you date someone more junior than yourself, regardless of whether they report in to you or not, it raises questions. The first big question is the question of consent. But more to the point it erodes your credibility for every decision you make that has any bearing whatsoever on the individual whom you’re in the relationship with. Once it’s known around the office – and this is generally a long time before you think it is known – you will be viewed differently in how you treat that individual, even if you’re playing with a really straight bet. Remember that as a leader you set the tone, the pace and the standard for your people.

For those of you who are listening and you’re already in this position (I know there’ll definitely be a few of you based on the available statistics on workplace romances), here’s a little bit of advice. First of all, I know some couples who met at work who are incredibly happy and they’ve managed to sustain the relationships without stepping on any of those landmines we spoke about earlier. But for every one of those, I can trot out 10 horror stories of the damage that was done both to the leader and to the object of their desire. If you find yourself in this situation, here’s two really important things that I think you need to do:

1. Talk it through with your boss

Put in place some mechanisms to ensure that you don’t inadvertently play favourites with your other half when it comes to making decisions for the organisation. This simply means that you need to have someone else helping you to make sure that you don’t let your biases creep in.

2. Be really honest about when a situation is unrecoverable in the workplace

I don’t mean the relationship being unrecoverable, I mean with your credibility as a leader can’t be recovered. If this happens you have to think about the possibility of at least one of you finding a new role in a different organisation or different part of a large organisation that doesn’t impinge on your leadership credibility.

When it boils down to it, there are over six billion people in the world. Do you really want to risk damaging your credibility, respect, and ultimately your career, because you want to date one of the few dozen people that you’re in close contact with at work?


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