Staying friends with your team

I had a conversation recently with a colleague about the challenges of having certain types of management conversations with a team that you’re socially close to. To put it another way, is it possible to deliver difficult messages to your friends? More broadly: does staying friends with your team compromise your managerial effectiveness?

When I started in management, the team I was given was the same team where I had been an individual contributor. In a situation like that, there are certainly some pitfalls: others on the team might be resentful they were passed over for the role, a close friendship with a colleague may be viewed as favoritism in the new team structure, and so on. That’s a difficult (but common) situation and makes the transition to management even harder than it is normally.

But let’s step past that scenario and into the “steady state” of management. You’re working closely with your team, have shared values and culture, and develop a strong working relationship. You eat lunch with them, invite them to social gatherings, give them holiday gifts, and so on. Some of them will undoubtedly be the people you are more likely to be friends with than others. In some ways, it’s not a question of whether you’ll become friends with individuals on your team, it’s what the impact of that will be.  From what I’ve seen, there are three main areas of concern:

  1. Delivering difficult messages
  2. Fairness (and the perception of fairness)
  3. Your own upward mobility.

Let’s be clear — delivering difficult messages is difficult (by definition!). When you have an emotional attachment to the other person, preparation for the conversation is more stressful, and it can be more challenging to make sure the person knows to take your message seriously. On the other hand, once the conversation happens, I’ve found that the message is processed more easily when it comes from someone with a strong trust relationship.  Because they know you weighed your decision carefully, they take the message more seriously, and are less likely to question your intentions.

Whether this balance weighs in your favor or against you is a matter of your own circumstances; it’s not an obvious win or loss. But it is important, no matter what, to be able to establish professional distance when necessary. You can’t pull someone into a conference room to coach them on their performance and open with discussion of the latest Star Wars movie. As your team begins to understand your cues for establishing this distance, it gets easier to take off your “friend hat” and put on your “manager hat”  but it does add some challenge.

Fairness, and the perception of fairness, is also a complex situation.  If you have a social life outside of work with only some of your team members, the others on your team may question the fairness of special recognition, compensation, and career advancement. But, this can be seen as just a special case of a broader issue – members of your team will either align with you or differ from you across a variety of points, including background, geography, hobbies, gender, nationality, religion, and more.  So the 21st century workforce, distributed across continents and diverse in ways we couldn’t imagine three decades ago, is rife with fairness pitfalls. Part of our job is to be fair, and be seen as fair. This might mean opening up social opportunities to those you might not otherwise interact with. It might mean toning down your praise of someone you think of as a friend, to make sure that the perception of that praise is equal to the praise you give to someone you’re less close to.

It’s worth periodically reviewing our interactions to think about how we’re seen here, and what we can and should do to maintain fairness as well as the appearance of fairness. Be conscious of your biases and work to overcome them.

So what about upward mobility?  This is an interesting question and probably depends greatly on your office politics.  As a front line manager, does “hanging around” with your team give off an impression that you’re still mentally an individual contributor and not ready to jump fully into management? It might, or it might be seen as someone who has their team’s full support and confidence. I think fairness factors in here as well. Being friends with half your team and excluding the others would likely be seen as a gap in your managerial skills, while maintaining friendly relationships with a diverse team would be seen as a successful example of inclusiveness.

I’ve seen it both ways, and I’m far from an expert myself. But I’ve seen very upwardly mobile low-level executives who still find time to have lunch with developers and chat about hobbies and pop-culture, even while maintaining professional distance when the situation required. In the end, it should boil down to results, and there’s no doubt in my mind that when we need to come together as a team and push extra hard, it’s much easier when we have some shared foundation beyond organizational coincidence to make us a team.