The Friend Zone: Supervisors & Employees

In 2008 I attended an orientation for new school administrators. During the event there was a roundtable discussion where veteran administrators fielded questions from novice leaders.

One topic of conversation was administrator-employee friendships. Specifically, new administrators were wondering what rules should be followed when building relationships with employees.

After a few minutes of conversation, one of the veteran administrators issued the following warning: “Get used to drinking by yourself in your basement.”

While this comment was made in jest, the gentleman was implying administration is a lonely, isolated world. More generally, the panel's advice was as follows: Administrators should avoid getting too close to staff members.

I wasn’t sure what to believe. I had always understood administrators should build relationships with students. But perhaps building relationships with staff members was a different story?

As I sat in the audience, I thought about each administrator I had worked under as a teacher. Coincidentally, those individuals never attempted to build a close relationship with me. “Maybe these veteran administrators are onto something,” I thought to myself.

Taking this new learning to heart, I started my administrative career very careful not to forge close relationships with staff members. I was cautious about sticking to professional conversations, and intentionally shared very little about my personal life in fear that employees would think I was crossing into the “friend zone.”

Over time my stance on this subject has completely changed.

Whereas the advice I was given was to avoid getting close to employees, I have found the strongest relationships I have formed with employees are those with whom I have been most vulnerable.

In their book The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner offer the following advice: “Managerial myth says that leaders shouldn’t get too close to their constituents, that they can’t be friends with people at work. Let’s set this myth aside. Employees who report having a friendly relationship with their manager are two-and-a-half times more satisfied with their job. Feeling a connection with others motivates people to work harder for the simple reason that people don’t like to disappoint or let down individuals they consider friends. People also stick around longer at their companies when they feel they have friends at their workplace.”

In First Break All the Rules, Jim Harter and Marcus Buckingham suggest: “The best managers build personal relationships with their people. This does not necessarily mean that you should become best friends with those who report to you, but you should go beyond simply having a detailed understanding of an employee’s talents and non-talents. As long as you still evaluate employees on performance outcomes, there is nothing wrong with being friendly with your employees.”

Contrary to the advice I was given, it’s perfectly acceptable to have friendly relationships with employees. While there's a fine line between being friendly and being friends, effective school leaders learn how to navigate this distinction.

Next time you're told administrators shouldn’t get too close to employees, don’t make my same mistake. Instead, trust your instinct and recognize that strong relationships increase staff engagement and decrease staff turnover.

Ok administrators, you can come up from the basement now. I promise your employees won’t bite.

Looking for another great book discussing the importance of supervisor-employee relationships? Consider reading The Effective Manager by Mark Horstman.

Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Jared Smith LLC.  Specializing in Leadership, Education, and Personal Growth.