When I began my administrative career, I was required to attend an orientation for new assistant principals.
As part of the two-day training, there was a panel discussion where veteran administrators fielded questions from novice leaders. One topic of conversation was administrator/employee friendships. Specifically, new leaders were wondering what rules to follow when building relationships with employees.
After a few minutes of dialogue, it became clear the experienced administrators were advising newcomers to be cautious in their relationships with employees.
“Be really careful,” insisted one mentor.
“Not a good idea,” suggested another.
“You’ll regret it,” said a third.
Toward the end of the conversation, one outspoken administrator issued the following warning: “Get used to drinking by yourself in your basement.”
While facetious in nature, this statement summarized the overwhelming sentiment of the panel which was that administrators should keep staff members at a distance.
As I walked out of the session, I wasn’t sure what to believe. Growing up, my parents taught me to be friendly and attentive to everyone. In high school, I learned that leadership is about influencing others. And as a teacher, I was reminded of the importance of relationships.
“Maybe leading adults requires a different approach?” I thought to myself.
A few minutes later, I thought about the leaders I worked under as a teacher. Of the ten or so administrators I worked for, there wasn’t one in which I had a strong relationship. Other than your typical formal observation or classroom walk-through, I couldn’t recall a single time when a leader went out of their way to engage me in meaningful conversation.
“Maybe these veteran administrators are onto something” I pondered while driving home from the conference.
Taking this advice to heart, I began my administrative career committed to avoiding close relationships with employees. I skirted conversations unrelated to work, rarely asking employees about family members or personal interests. Furthermore, I isolated myself whenever possible, sitting alone at meetings and trainings as opposed to actively engaging with staff.
Everything changed approximately six months later when I received an email from a veteran teacher. This individual was an incredible educator and highly respected in our building.
The email began, “I wish you would get to know us.”
She then gave a detailed summary of her life, describing her husband, kids, career path, and hobbies.
She ended the email with: “Please spend more time getting to know your teachers.”
My heart sank upon reading this email.
She was completely right. By refusing to let my guard down around employees, I was doing the exact opposite of what effective leaders should do. While experience told me to behave one way … my conscious was telling me otherwise.
From that point forward, I understood the importance of building relationships with employees.
School leaders should not be afriad to let their guard down with employees.
Managerial myth says leaders shouldn’t get too close to their employees.
Let’s set this myth aside.
Employees who have a friendly relationship with their boss report being more engaged, motivated, happier, and more content than employees who do not feel a similar connection.
“But Jared, I have 100 employees,” you may be thinking. “How can I possibly build relationships with everyone?”
While the depth of most workplace relationships depends on proximity and access, steps can be taken to strengthen connections with all employees. Here are seven of my best ideas:
Every Interaction Matters: In our district, we believe that that every employee matters. Furthermore, we believe that every employee interaction matters. Bosses who are serious about building relationships realize there is no such thing as a “trivial” conversation. Instead, they treat each interaction as an opportunity to positively impact an employee's life.
Invest Time: Bosses who are serious about building relationships invest time in their people. “But I talk to my employees all the time,” you might be thinking. Unfortunately, hallway chit chat and meeting small talk do little to build strong connections. Leaders must routinely give employees their undivided attention for sustained periods of time.
Social Media: One of the most efficient methods for building relationships with a large number of employees is social media. Social media is where staff share what is most important in their lives. Leaders who take time to like, comment, and – most importantly – learn about their employees, do wonders to strengthen connections.
Email: Another high-leverage opportunity to build relationships with employees is email. “Email?” you may be thinking. “That feels so impersonal.” Whereas most people view email as a necessasry evil, savvy leaders use email to build relationships with employees by not only validating feelings, but also by looking for opportunities to show appreciation for the employees they supervise.
Birthdays Emails: One of the most efficient methods for buildings relationships with dozens (if not hundreds) of employees is by sending birthday emails. Once birthdays have been imported into your electronic calendar, send employees a heartfelt message on their big day. You would not believe how many employees are shocked by these unexpected messages!
Don’t Forget Support Staff: Despite making up nearly half of the school work force, support staff often feel neglected by administration. Leaders must be intentional about visiting the spaces where food service, custodians, bus drivers, and others support staff are located. Simply popping in and saying “Wow, your team has been rocking it recently - we appreciate everything you do!” goes a long way towards building rapport with those individuals.
Food: One of the best ways to build inroads with staff is food! On Monday mornings, I hand deliver candy to district office employees. And one Friday a month, I hand deliver donuts to employees in one of the 20 buildings in our district. Not only do staff love a treat to start their day ... I also get an opportunity to postively engage with a large number of employees in a short amount of time.
Donut Fridays are one of my favorite traditions!
As I reflect back on my first year as an administrator, I can’t believe my inaccurate views about building relationships with employees.
Don’t make my same mistake.
Rather than distance yourself from staff, try to get to know your employees on a personal level.
Not only will you feel better, your school will be better as well.
If you liked this article, you'll love my books Learning Curve and Turning Points.