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Managers should be cautious about mingling with staff members

“I joined this company recently as a manager and team leader and have been surprised to see other managers socializing and hanging out a lot with their people after work. I came from a more traditional company and am not really comfortable doing that. But it seems to be part of the culture here. And I’m afraid if I don’t, I will be perceived as not “fitting in” somehow. To me, there has always been a strict line between the personal and professional but maybe that’s not as true these days as it used to be? Please advise.”

And many people like it that way. According to a 2013 Robert Half survey, six in 10 managers said they felt uncomfortable being friended by their bosses or employees they oversee. And that extends to social media, too. Nearly 50 percent of survey respondents said they preferred to not connect with coworkers on Facebook, compared to 41 percent in 2009.No one can blame you for feeling uncomfortable or awkward about hanging out with your team after hours. Managers and employees have traditionally kept their distance when it comes to personal friendships.

“I don’t hang out with my employees after work,” says Juli Smith, president of the Smith Consulting Group, a recruiting firm in Jackson, Mich., an affiliate of Sanford Rose Associates. “It’s OK to do a social event once in a while, a barbecue or a lunch, but to go out, as in ‘where is everyone meeting up for drinks tonight?’ I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

It’s fine to occasionally socialize with the team, so they’ll see you as a human being and to meet their families, she says. But they still need to respect you as a leader who makes tough decisions when you need to, particularly on things like promotions and terminations. “There’s a risk of being too cozy with an employee you might have to fire.”

In an article on themuse.com, writer Jennifer Winter recalled the difficulty she faced with in-office friendships as a young manager. “I was young and eager to please my new staff while still earning my management stripes. I had a great team and friendships were easily formed among all of us,” she wrote. “It was great for the first few months, but then I had to start, well, managing them. That’s when things got sticky.”

“Suddenly, I was no longer their friend or drinking buddy; I was management. Enforcing policies, discussing performance and conducting annual reviews became painful and awkward for all involved. All because I got too involved.”

After that, Winter wrote, she made it a point to keep friendships on the casual side and she only attended non-work events occasionally. “Did I miss out on some of the fun—and good friendships? Probably, but it made life much, much easier when the time came to be their manager.”

Despite concerns about tensions, the lines between the personal and professional continue to blur these days as more managers embrace being open and genuine as part of their approach to leadership, and companies worry more than ever about employee “engagement.”

Indeed, having friendships at work increases employee satisfaction by some 50 percent, according to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace poll. “When employees possess a deep sense of affiliation with their team members, they are driven to take positive actions that benefit the business—actions they may not otherwise even consider,” Gallup researchers wrote. And many companies, including Zappos and Google, promote bonding between employees.

“It’s hard to avoid developing friendships with colleagues, especially with the amount of time we spend working,” says Shani Magosky, an executive coach and founder of the Better Boss Project, a leadership coaching and education program in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Research shows that it’s the unplanned, informal experiences between people that build strong relationships with trust and loyalty, which are key elements to effective team performance.”

It’s important, though, to have the “professional maturity” and “presence of mind” to differentiate your roles when appropriate, she says. “You might have a personal friendship with a direct report but a) don’t let that hold you back from delivering constructive feedback or disciplinary action if required, and b) clearly communicate when you’re wearing your manager hat.”

Daniel Passov, founder and president of a young company called GreekU Inc., says this boss-as-friend topic comes up all the time in his entrepreneurial world. “In my opinion, being ‘friends’ with your employees is possible if you set boundaries,” he says.

He conducts quarterly employee reviews that provide “a line of communication that specifically deals with work.”  Beyond that, treating employees like friends at work, when you discuss your weekends, your plans, your goals and your relationships, is fine, along with regular socializing, he says, and contributes significantly to high morale and low turnover.

That boundary will require some interpersonal skills, wrote Kristi Hedges in a 2015 article in Forbes. “If you’re going to build friendships with your employees, then you need to get comfortable proactively managing conflict and communicating clearly.”

But it really all depends on your definition of “friend,” wrote Jay Goltz, owner of several small businesses in Chicago, in a 2014 New York Times article. “There might be a difference between a business friend and a lifelong friend. In my case, I have numerous people who fit into both categories,” he wrote.

Goltz wrote that he is fortunate to be surrounded by a supportive organization, including about nine or 10 people whom he would consider his friends at work. “As friends, or as valuable employees, they tell me when I am wrong. You might say they are the opposite of yes men.”

As you continue to figure out the fine line between employee and friend, Stephanie Broussard, metro market manager of the Rochester office of Robert Half Finance & Accounting, Management Resources, Accountemps, and OfficeTeam Inc. offered these tips:

Assess these types of situations carefully. “While the new office and company culture is not what you’re accustomed to, you don’t want to appear that you are alienating yourself or unwilling to get to know your new colleagues,” she says.

Go ahead and open up with coworkers to give them a glimpse of your personality and interests, Broussard says. “Let them know that while you take work seriously, you can adapt and have conversations that don’t always relate to what happens during work hours.”

As a manager, participating in social events can give you valuable insights about staff and their personalities that could be beneficial when it comes to certain projects or tasks.

Don’t overindulge in alcohol. “While you might want to fit in with your peers, you are still the manager and it’s important to keep that level of professionalism,” she says.

Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585)249-9295 or by e-mail at kadriscoll@aol.com.

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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