Why Can't We Be Friends?

Updated: Oct 22

When I began my administrative career I was required to attend an orientation for new assistant principals.


As a part of the two-day event, there was a panel discussion where veteran administrators fielded questions from novice leaders.

One topic of conversion was administrator-employee friendships. Specifically, new administrators were wondering what rules to follow for building relationships with employees.

After a few minutes of dialogue, it became clear the experienced administrators were advising newcomers to be cautious about forging relationships with employees.


"Be real careful," insisted one advisor.

"Not a good idea," suggested another.

"You'll regret it," said a third.


Towards the end of the conversation, one outspoken administrator issued the following warning: “Get used to drinking by yourself in your basement.”

While this comment was made facetiously, this statement summarized the panel's advice that administrators should keep staff members at a distance.


I wasn’t sure what to believe. Growing up my parents taught me the importance of being friendly to everyone. In school I learned the best leaders built relationships with their followers.


Perhaps managing adults in the "real world" was a different story?

Sitting in the audience, I considered the administrators I worked under as a teacher. Rarely did those leaders show an interest in getting to know me. Other than the mandatory classroom observation and occasional walkthrough, I couldn’t recall a time when a leader engaged me in meaningful conversation.

“Maybe these veteran administrators are onto something,” I pondered as I left the conference.

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Taking this new discovery to heart, I began my administrative career committed to avoiding close relationships with staff members. I skirted conversations unrelated to work, restraining myself from asking employees about family or personal interests. Furthermore, I isolated myself as much as possible, choosing to sit alone at school functions as opposed to immersing myself with staff.

A couple years into my administrative career I was proud of my progress. By following the advice of experienced leaders and mirroring the behavior of former administrators, I had effectively detached myself from our faculty.


Everything seemed fine until one evening I received an email from a veteran staff member. This teacher was an incredible educator and highly respected in our building.

The email started, “I wish you would get to know us.”

She then provided me a detailed summary of her life, including her husband, kids, interests, and hobbies.


She ended the email with, "Please spend more time getting to know your teachers."

My heart sunk upon reading this email.


She was completely right. By avoiding meaningful interactions with employees, I was doing the exact opposite of what effective leaders should do. I hardly knew our staff, and they barely knew me.


Moving forward I was committed to doing what I knew was right - which was to build relationships with staff members.


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Managerial myth says leaders shouldn’t get too close to their employees.

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 because people don’t like to disappoint individuals with whom one has a close bond. People also stick around longer at their jobs when they like their boss.


Unfortunately there are several "urban legends" preventing bosses from building relationships with employees. Here are five of the most common:


"I don't share my number" - Why do so many leaders refuse to give their cell phone number to employees? Do they believe staff will abuse this privilege? Employees who can't use a phone number responsibly have much bigger issues.


"I don't text" - Some leaders refuse to text message direct reports. They believe this form of communication is "unprofessional" or could result in legal issues. Do they realize documented text messages offer more protections than unmonitored phone calls?


"I don't mingle" - Do you work for a leader who isolates themselves from employees in school gatherings? This action screams "I'm better than you." Effective bosses use social opportunities to show they are down-to-earth rather than self-absorbed.


"I don't ride together" - Some leaders refuse to ride in the same car as employees. This scenario is especially comical when boss and employee go to and from the same location. Leaders who refuse to offer a lift or ride shotgun for short periods of time appear snobbish.


"I don't "friend"" - Many bosses stay away from friending employees on social media. Assuming leaders aren't keyboard warriors or hiding questionable weekend behaviors, social media can be a great way to learn about staff and unlock conversations.


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While it would not be wise to become best friends with direct reports, school leaders should go beyond having a detailed understanding of an employee's abilities in the classroom. While this can be a fine line, effective school leaders learn how to navigate this distinction.


Next time you are told it's "not a good idea" for bosses to form relationships with employees, realize this is an outdated approach to leadership.


School employees want to work for a boss who is approachable and pleasant, not distant and aloof.

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