It’s typically seen as a faux pas or a failure of leadership for bosses to be friends with their employees. After all, nobody wants to be the Michael Scott of their office, and it’s hard to reprimand a good friend when they aren’t pulling their weight.
But how we conduct business these days is different than it was even 10 years ago, and the manager-employee dynamic needs to adapt accordingly. Bosses are no longer sequestered in corner offices, and it’s no surprise that employees are happier when they have friends in the workplace. According to Gallup’s latest State of the American Workplace poll, friendships at work can increase employee satisfaction by up to 50%. The employee management company Globoforce has separately found that more than 60% of employees who have at least six friends at work admit to loving their company.
It’s up to managers to foster and strengthen office culture, understand what motivates their team members, and help them achieve their goals and the company’s. Simply put, one way to do that is to build friendships. Here’s how to go about it the right way.
Whenever I hire someone new, I prioritize the candidate’s passion for the company’s goals more than just about any other quality. You don’t want to hire somebody just because you like them personally (although that counts, too, of course). I want someone who knows what we’re doing and wants to contribute to it. I’m not interested in people who are just looking for a paycheck, no matter how many programming languages they know.
Sharing those goals has some surprising upshots, though. It immediately eliminates a lot of the bureaucratic formality of a traditional boss-employee relationship. After all, we’re teammates. I’m just the coach, and I want everyone to perform as well as they can. I trust the members on my team to want that, too.
Just as you would trust a friend to give you honest advice when you ask for it, it’s up to you as a manager to be honest when it comes to employee feedback. After all, your employees want to succeed as much as you do. Whether it’s a scheduled meeting or an informal chat during a coffee run, you can be forthright and candid whenever your team members solicit your input.
If I notice that one of my staff just isn’t performing at the same level they used to, I don’t penalize them on their next quarterly report. Instead, I casually ask if they’d like to talk about their work. I have to make sure that each employee has the support and resources they need to do their best, and a lot of that boils down to honesty and encouragement.
It’s a manager’s job to bring out the best in every team member, and that requires going beyond the tasks they’re charged with executing. Get to know everyone who reports to you and make sure they always have a safe space to share their ideas and concerns.
A boss doesn’t have to be intimidating to be effective. By the same token, you don’t need to actually implement all the ideas and opinions of your employees as long as you demonstrate that you’re taking them into account. I would hate to give the impression that a web developer can’t come to me when he has an idea for an amazing new feature–even if we don’t end up running with it. Not only is that where innovations tend to come from, it’s smart for building trust and positive morale, too.
Some of the top companies in the world have developed flexible work cultures that let employees blow off steam in unstructured environments. Even if your office doesn’t offer dedicated space for just hanging out, you can encourage more informal interactions that are actually productive. I’ve seen some of the best brainstorming sessions occur when everyone involved feels relaxed and open to letting their crazy ideas wander.
Some companies have built in social time with themed monthly lunches, by installing a foosball table, or through company retreats. All that contributes to creating a safe space for people to be themselves and make friends with each other, and there’s no reason managers shouldn’t be involved in that, too. Through these casual interactions, my team and I have all been able to find out a little more about each other and form close office bonds. We’ve become a stronger company through those efforts.
What I won’t do is pry. I don’t connect with my employees on my Facebook. I don’t ask too many questions about their personal lives beyond what they’re willing to volunteer, and I don’t imagine that we’ll still be friends who hang out if either of us leaves the company. And that’s okay.
No matter how many jokes we crack over an office happy hour, I still have to lead the team as best as I can. Still, I’ve found that being the leader of the company doesn’t mean I have to stay in my office and come out only to give orders.
John Rampton is the founder of Palo Alto, California-based Due, a free online invoicing company specializing in helping businesses bill their clients easily online. He is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization composed of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. Follow him on Twitter @johnrampton.