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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

Ask a Candid Boss: Can Managers Be Friends With Their Employees?

boss and employee talking
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Dear Candid Boss,

Can managers and employees be friends and still function in a typical manager-employee way?

Curious Professional

Hi Curious Professional,

The relationship a manager has with an employee is definitely not a friendship, which may be described as a two-way street. As such, being a manager often feels like a lonely, one-way, pay-it-forward street. But, if you’ve ever had a great boss, you know it’s also one of the most deeply personal and meaningful relationships life can offer.

When you’re the boss, you need to care personally about each employee, but you also need to provide appropriate challenges and opportunities for growth.

Caring personally means it’s your job to listen to people’s stories, to get to know them well enough to understand what motivates them, to encourage them to take a step in the direction of their dreams, to help them do the best work of their lives.

But good leaders also recognize that it’s a part of their jobs to tell people when their work isn’t up to par, that they’re not going to get promoted, that a project they were excited about is getting killed—and even, sometimes, that they’re getting fired.

The way I see it, if nobody on your team’s mad at you, you’re probably not doing your job. As Colin Powell said, leadership sometimes means being willing to piss people off.

That doesn’t mean managers should operate like cold-hearted robots. After all, your relationship with employees determines whether you can fulfill the core responsibilities of this role: to guide the team to achieve results.

If you think a boss can succeed without strong relationships, you’re kidding yourself. I’m not saying that unchecked power, control, or authority never work. They work especially well in a baboon troop or a totalitarian regime. But telling people what to do and how to do it won’t inspire creative thinking. Over time it’ll only serve to frustrate and make them quit, or, worse, stay and do mediocre work, living lives of quiet desperation.

So what exactly does a good boss-employee relationship look like—if not friendship? It begins with excellent communication. Start by soliciting feedback. This means being humble and confident enough to address concerns without getting defensive. A question you can use: “Is there anything I can do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?”

Next, focus on the good stuff; praise often—publicly and sincerely. The more specific you can be, the better.

When you see someone screwing up, you must be able to convey the issue in a way that’s perfectly clear, but which still reassures them that you care and have confidence in their abilities.

Don’t save all your constructive criticism for 1:1’s—the best time to give feedback is in-the-moment, private conversations. Feedback takes emotional energy, and if you don’t genuinely care about the people who work for you, you’re going to struggle with this important part of the job.

The manager-employee relationship is not a friendship. But it is a deeply human relationship, and when it works, it unlocks human potential.

This article is part of our monthly Ask an Expert series—a column dedicated to helping you tackle your biggest career concerns. Our coaches are excited to answer all of your burning questions, and you can submit one by emailing us at editor(at)themuse(dot)com and using Ask a Candid Boss in the subject line.

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