With Martin G. Moore

Episode #197

Why Can’t We Be Friends? Navigating friendships as a leader

I first outlined one of my most important leadership philosophies in Ep.14: Friendly, But Not Friends. Since then, a few things have changed…

We’ve listened to over 1,000 leaders who’ve taken our flagship program, Leadership Beyond the Theory; societal standards have changed (yes, believe it or not, in only 3 or 4 years); Covid has come and (sort-of) gone; and I’ve been challenged by many leaders who’ve told me that they completely disagree with my Friendly, Not Friends principle.

Despite all of this, I still firmly believe in the need for professional distance between a leader and her people.

In this episode, I update and reboot this important topic. Every working relationship you develop will be different. But if you can manage to maintain professional distance, you’ll be able to lead your team more effectively, and your life will be a whole lot easier.

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Episode #197 Why Can’t We Be Friends? Navigating friendships as a leader

Since I decided to dedicate one of the earliest episodes of No Bullsh!t Leadership to the issue of friendships in the workplace, a few things have happened:

  • We’ve listened to over a thousand leaders who’ve taken our flagship program Leadership Beyond the Theory.

  • Societal standards have changed – yes, believe it or not in only three or four years!

  • COVID has come and gone… sort of.

  • I’ve been challenged by many leaders who’ve said to me, “Marty, I completely disagree with this principle of ‘friendly, not friends’. Some of the best working relationships I’ve ever had have become friendships!”

Despite all of this, I still firmly believe that the way to go in relationships with people who work for you is to be friendly, but not friends. So I figured it’s time I did a reboot on this important topic. Like anything else in leadership, every relationship you develop is different. This requires you to read the play, and apply your experience and judgment to each specific situation.

If you want to get my original thoughts on this as a baseline, listen to Episode #14: Friendly, Not Friends, and download your copy of ”The Dos and Don’ts of Appropriate Leader Relationships”.


I’m friendly to pretty much everyone I come into contact with, it’s in my nature. Whether you’re serving me in a restaurant, standing in line in front of me at the pharmacy, or even if you just happen to work for the same company that I do, I’m quick to smile, engage, and connect with people on a human level. I’m genuinely interested in who they are and what they have to say.

In the workplace, with the people who actually worked on my teams, it meant I did a lot of listening – particularly to my direct reports. I paid attention to what was important to each individual that I interacted with. I knew what made them tick. I knew about their aspirations, their frustrations, and their joys. I could tell when they were off their game, and I could tell when they were performing at their best.

I shared as much of myself as I could if I thought that it would help them to be better or to have a broader perspective. All of this, without crossing the line to being friends. They knew they could count on my support and guidance, and I was direct and honest in my communication. But for the most part, I wasn’t their friend. Being friends is more than this, it goes beyond a friendly collegial relationship and enters another realm altogether.

The key differences are this: as friends, you would normally find yourself spending a lot of time together socially, outside of the work environment. Friends share things with each other: thoughts, feelings, desires, et cetera, that they wouldn’t share with someone who is just a colleague. There’s a very close, personal bond that friends develop that says “You can rely on me to have your back no matter what.” It’s part of the unspoken, psychological commitment that friends make to each other.

That’s where it gets complicated, and the playing field that the team operates on becomes skewed. The key difference in my definition between friendly and friends can be summed up in one phrase: professional distance.


Professional distance keeps an appropriate line between you and the people who work for you, and that line can’t be crossed. You can have really strong, connected, caring relationships with the people you work with and still maintain your professional distance – and that’s all important. With friends, you invariably lose the objectivity that comes with professional distance, no matter how good you might think you are at maintaining it.

Being friendly costs nothing. It enables you to demonstrate genuine interest and connection with another human. It adds value to people if you can make them smile or think, or share a different perspective – over here in the US it’s often enough for me to just say “G’day”.

Being friendly with the people you work with is really good. In fact, if you want to be a great leader, I’d say it’s essential. You need a context to operate within that demonstrates that you actually care about the people who turn up each day to give their best to you and the team.

In my experience, you won’t ever be able to get the best from your people unless you know them reasonably well. Otherwise, how would you know how far to stretch them? How would you be able to read the signs of stress or burnout? How would you be able to find development opportunities that are aligned with their career ambitions? Being friendly is the starting point for trust and respect.


What’s the big deal about being friends? Here’s eight reasons why being friends with the people who work for you isn’t such a good idea:

1. It changes the nature of the relationship on both sides. 

The leader will make concessions for a friend that they wouldn’t otherwise make, and the follower will take advantage of the leader’s good nature because of the friendship. “Not me, Marty!” I hear you say, “I’ve got that under control. I’m completely impartial.” Well, I’m afraid that’s bullsh!t! You won’t be able to avoid it. It happens no matter what – not because either of you are malicious, or bad people… not even because either of you consciously seeks to do so. It’s simply because your unconscious bias changes the way you treat a friend.

2. No matter what you say or think, you will find it even harder to do the hard work of leadership.

When there’s a hard conversation that needs to be held or a hard decision that needs to be made, you will rationalize even more when it comes to a friend. You will hesitate for longer – or maybe forever. You’ll reject the negatives and instead give them the benefit of any doubt, in every situation.

3. It’ll be harder to overcome your inbuilt biases. 

Just think about the prime example of the halo effect. If one of your direct reports is your friend, you’ll no doubt have a higher level of respect and admiration for them. You’ll have exposure to a broader range of their behaviors and world-views through your friendship interactions. You’ll look more favorably on them in all areas of their performance. You’ll think of friends as high potential people – you may even make commitments to them that you shouldn’t about their advancement inside the organization.

Learn more about unconscious biases and how they limit our self-awareness and impact our judgment with Episode #192: Avoiding Common Biases

4. You need to exercise your duty of care as a leader, without fear or favor. 

People have to be given the same opportunities, the same support, and the same protections. Just be careful with this one, though–I’m talking about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. The outcomes people achieve should be determined by one thing, and one thing only: performance.

5. A friend will eat into your Respect Before Popularity mantra. 

The very first episode of No Bullsh!t Leadership was called Respect Before Popularity because this is the number one principle for a leader to observe when they’re trying to lead people well. When you’re with a friend, you will want to be popular, and you’ll want to build and foster that friendship. You won’t want to risk it by doing unpopular things. If you can’t keep your focus on respect before popularity with everyone on your team, it’s a really slippery slope.

Want to know how you can let go of your need to be liked? Listen to Episode #1: Respect Before Popularity and download your copy of my Daily Reflection Questions.

6. You’ll find it hard to keep your guard up.

You’re likely to share things that you probably shouldn’t with a friend who’s at a lower level than you are. This happens for two reasons:

  • You’ll have more opportunities to talk about work in a less formal and less structured environment, perhaps over a beer… you might even be sitting on each other’s porches.

  • Your additional familiarity will make you feel more relaxed and you’ll be less careful about letting things slip.

You’ll be more open about how you feel with a friend, so little comments may start to slip about peers or superiors. You may find yourself sharing confidential information that should be only shared at your level. “Surely my friend will keep my confidence,” I hear you say. Are you sure about that? My definition of a secret is something that you only tell one other person, so you can do the math on that one.

7. There will be perceptions of favoritism in your team and this erodes your credibility. 

It may be entirely appropriate for you to have a closer relationship with your highest performers. But if your friend isn’t a top performer, it becomes a simple case of favoritism. Other people will see this, and will feel disengaged and disheartened. And it’s even worse when your friendship goes to the next level and you have a romantic relationship with someone in your team. That’s wrong on so many levels (but more on this shortly).

8. When a friend underperforms, and you have to make the tough decision to remove them from their role, that leaves a nasty taste in everyone’s mouth.

There were three occasions in my corporate career where I had to terminate someone who I was pretty close to. I wouldn’t say that any of them were close friends, but closer than I would’ve liked under the circumstances – we knew each other’s families and we’d spent a number of social occasions together.

So if they don’t perform, and you manage to steel yourself to take the necessary action, it basically heralds the end of the friendship for all involved. Then, any friends of those friends also decide that you are the devil, leaving a noticeable hole in your social calendar. And make no mistake, it falls to the leader who makes the hard decision to bear the brunt of it. Everyone looking from the outside in thinks that it’s heartless to treat a friend that way, which is sort of ironic because the friend who didn’t perform in that role should feel worse for not delivering and for letting their friend, the leader, down.


So what’s changed? Well, I’ve learned that COVID has made a difference. Since remote working has taken root, it’s more difficult to grow work friendships, which is probably a good thing. But it also means that perceptions of access and time spent with team members are even more important. If a team member feels isolated, but they manage to work out that other people are getting more face time with you as the boss, that can create a division between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. This makes it especially important to level the playing field for every team member.

I’ve also learned that differentiating on merit naturally creates stronger relationships. Now, I sort of already knew that, but the dozens of conversations I’ve had on this topic in the last few years have really reinforced it. I said in the original episode that you should spend 90% of your time with your best people. If you actually manage to do that well, you will undoubtedly develop stronger relationships with your best people and you’ll naturally be closer to them. So there’s likely to be a strong correlation between someone who you’re close to and someone who is actually delivering the goods. The secret here is to make sure you keep that professional distance, no matter what.

I’ve learned that there are some genuinely tricky situations. What happens, for example, if you are promoted from within your team to then lead that same team? This is a really common scenario, and it’s likely you will have developed peer friendships, which are entirely appropriate. But then you are thrust into a position where you now have to lead those same people – some of whom might be friends.

The bad news is you cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube on this one. However, you can mitigate the potential negatives by putting explicit boundaries in place. It’s been a number of years since I was in that position, however, even way back then, I understood the difficulties of having to lead someone who was a close friend. A really clear and explicit conversation that goes something like this should do the trick:

“Hey Greg, this is a potentially tricky situation. You know that you’re a close friend of mine, but now I have to lead this team. I can’t afford to show any favoritism, because that would end in tears for both of us. I absolutely don’t want to lose our friendship, but I’m going to have to put some boundaries in place at work. I’ll still always be there for you personally, but I know you’ll understand why I need to be a little less familiar with you in the office.”

Even though you can’t undo the past, this is a good way of putting some professional distance in place – at least when you’re around each other in a work environment.

I’ve learned more about small towns and family businesses. Small towns are really hard. I gave a keynote in Florida at the end of last year to a large energy cooperative, and the board director who facilitated the Q&A session after my speech asked me that very question: “How do you not form friendships?” His business was only small in relative terms, and many of these people had worked for him for over 20 years. They do have weekend barbecues and social gatherings. Their families are often close to one another.

I also ran into this when I was leading CS Energy. There are places where a particular operational site is the main employer in the town. Everyone’s kids go to the same school, their leaders’ husbands play social sport together on a Wednesday night. It’s almost impossible to be friendly, not friends in those circumstances.

This is why keeping professional distance is absolutely essential in these circumstances, but it can be incredibly difficult. We even used to bring in middle managers from outside of the town, just so they didn’t have those deep, strong family bonds with the people they had to lead. Middle managers who take a strong line on performance in places like this are often ostracized in the community. Their wives don’t get invited to social events, their kids are bullied at school – can you believe that? Forget being a CEO, these are the toughest leadership jobs around.

Learn more about the Curse of the Middle Manager with Episode #74.


Here’s something that’s really changed in a few short years: the dynamics of romantic relationships in the workplace. I’ve had many people say to me since I recorded ‘Friendly, Not Friends’, “Marty, I don’t agree with you. That’s ridiculous. I met my husband at work.” Fair enough, I understand that. But we’ve seen so many cases in the last few years of high profile, highly paid, successful executives whose careers have been ruined because they haven’t understood one really important principle: When you are the boss, there is a power dynamic that almost guarantees that you can’t have a relationship of equals.

It’s almost like an ‘age of consent’ issue, but it’s now a ‘position of consent’ issue. Let me explain: in many countries, the age of consent is interpreted in a way that says. until someone reaches a certain age, they are incapable of giving their consent. They don’t have the maturity, the experience or the understanding to give genuine consent.

Think about this in the context of power dynamics at work. Although I’m the first one to fight for the rights of female agency and self-determination, this is an awfully muddy area. Social norms, particularly in the US and Australia, seem to have swung much further into the direction of protecting women from predatory behavior in the workplace. This is an incredibly welcome and long overdue change, but I’m sure there are also many workplaces where this hasn’t yet taken root.

Let’s think about the risks, particularly to male leaders. Comments that only a few short years ago would’ve been considered acceptable are now taboo. The slightest hint of what we call an unwanted advance is now a punishable offense. Perhaps this is exactly what we needed to redress the imbalance and protect the many females who don’t feel as though they have the power to speak up, to push back, or to bring attention to this unacceptable behavior – all because of the power dynamics.

So guess what? Male or female, when you are a leader, you cannotmust not–think that it is in any way acceptable to cross that line with someone who works for you. It’s the only way to be sure that the object of your affections isn’t compliant because of the power dynamics at play. If you’re in a relationship with someone who works for you, one of you probably needs to get another job. And if you think you can keep it a secret, you can’t. Let me illustrate this one with a quick example:

Many years ago, my executive assistant brought to my attention the fact that two senior leaders from different departments – one of whom was a peer to me – had coinciding travel schedules. There was no reason on God’s green earth why they needed to be in the same location at the same time. She found out when reconciling the travel expenses for the group that these two – who had completely unrelated jobs – had a habit of flying to the same location at the same time, a pattern that had been established for over a year. Both were married – but not to each other – and they were having what they thought was a well concealed office affair, although many people suspected.

This was a real integrity lapse in my eyes. I don’t know about you, but I would really struggle to trust anyone who’s willing to fabricate reasons to travel on the company’s money so that they can spend time with the object of their affections. It reeks of a self-seeking lack of integrity.

No matter how you slice and dice it, a workplace romance will end in tears. Perhaps one of you decides to call it quits, and the other one seeks revenge. Perhaps someone in the team decides that they should make a more public issue of the obvious favoritism that can’t be avoided when you are romantically involved with one of your people. Perhaps you just have that nagging feeling that you are always caught between doing the right thing by your romantic partner or doing the right thing for the team and company – as is your job.

I’ve had people say to me that their most productive and best working relationships were with friends and that it didn’t impair their judgment at all. That may be their perspective, but I remain deeply skeptical that anyone can operate without the subconscious favoritism of friendship influencing their decisions and actions. Leadership is hard enough without this, so keep your professional distance and remain friendly, but not friends.

If you want to dip your toe in the water a little more and find out what real leaders do to get results, check out my free Leadership Level Up Masterclass.


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