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Can you be a manager AND a mate?

I've been challenged by this question a lot in my years working in HR, and more recently, as a manager - yet I'm still not sure I have the answer. I'm currently working on a frontline leadership program, aimed at employees who have transitioned from working 'on the tools' to supervisory positions. These leaders are now faced with the challenge of managing, well, their mates. So the question is, can you be a manager, and a mate?

Whilst I don't agree that when you step into a leadership position, you give up all friendly relationships in the workplace, I do think boundaries change, and you will need to make a conscious effort to set these boundaries with your team. Can you still have a friendly relationship? Of course. Do you continue to go out for beers on the weekend with your team? Well, probably not.

Research shows us that it's important for everyone to have at least one 'friend' at work. In 30 years of organisational engagement research at Gallup, the question 'do you have a best friend at work?' is often controversial. With some believing strongly that personal friendships should be left at the door. Gallup's research shows the impact that employees who have a close friend at work has on performance. For example, women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with the women who say otherwise (29%). Crazy, right?

But what about if you're a manager? Or in my past life, in Human Resources (gasp, no!). Whilst it's equally important for leaders to have a support network in their jobs, who makes up that network should be carefully considered. Think peers, mentors and those outside the organisation. When it comes to your team, or those you have the power to directly influence, the line between 'friend' and 'manager' should be dealt with cautiously. Remembering that scenarios (often outside of your control) will put strain on that friendship, and working relationship.

What happens in the case of underperformance, or misconduct? Are you both professional enough to handle those situations without taking into consideration your friendship? Even if you argue that yes, you would be able to seperate your friendship and management responsibilities - what you cannot control, is other people's perceptions of your relationship. And trust me, perceptions DO matter. Perceived favouritism, for example, will have a detrimental effect on the whole team.

I don't mean to suggest that when you're a manager, you abandon all humanness in the workplace. The term 'mate' is an Australianism that can mean a broad spectrum of things. For me, being a manager and a mate is OK if it means:

  • Asking how their life is outside of work

  • Checking-in to see how they are going

  • Being friendly, and offering support

It's not a black and white answer, and for 'people people' like myself, it can be challenging to navigate without crossing the line. But if you set clear boundaries with your team, and stand by them when you need to, you'll be on the right track.

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