How to be friends with your staff (without crossing the line)

How to be friends with your staff (without crossing the line)

Leadership can be hard, but with friends who can support you, it doesn’t have to be.

BY Shelley Flett, 6 min READ

It’s well known that teams don’t perform well without trust.

In fact, empirical studies by Connell, Ferres, and Travaglione (2003), have shown that “having trust in one’s leader, in turn, has been tied to desirable performance outcomes such as satisfaction, retention, commitment and performance”.

So, as a leader, how do you build trust with your staff? Acting with integrity, communicating effectively, being approachable and supporting your people all helps. But, if you’re wanting to build deep trust, where you can be completely honest, challenge ways of thinking and share the good, the bad and the ugly, then you need a different kind of relationship – a friendship.

I’m not talking about the friendship where you tell me what I want to hear and avoid saying or doing anything that might ‘rock the boat’. I’m talking about the friendship where I care about you and you care about me, as people. Where you can call me on my bullshit, and I can call you on yours, because deep down we both want each other to succeed. A friendship like this involves mutual respect and genuine care for the other persons success, health and happiness. It is this kind of friendship what will enable leaders to build deep trust.

When I first moved into a leadership role, I strongly believed that I couldn’t be friends with my staff. I was told by other managers that “you can’t be too friendly with your people or they’ll take advantage of you” along with “you need to let them know where they stand”, oh and my favourite, “your team need to know who’s boss, you can’t cross that line”.

Looking back now, those comments seem a little crazy, but at the time I truly believed that successful leaders couldn’t be friends with their staff. The relationships I had taken months to form with my then-peers dissolved the minute I stepped into my first team leader role. I cut myself off from the very people who could have supported me through an overwhelmingly tough and lonely transition into leadership. I struggled to build a cohesive team and for the next three years I was really only successful in creating a ‘me vs. them’ culture. Everything was hard, every day was a battle and the more I pushed, the more I was met with resistance.

What I’ve learnt, in the decade since, is that leadership doesn’t have to be hard. Of course, there will always be a never-ending list of things to do, but if you’re surrounded by friends who will support you, it’s so much more achievable and enjoyable.

If, like me, you still worry about ‘crossing the line’ and developing friendships with your staff then here’s my top ten reasons to reconsider:

  1. Friends help you feel connected, like you are part of something.
  2. Friends care about you and if you care about the work you do, so will they!
  3. Friends want you to succeed.
  4. Friends have a deeper level of trust in you and vice versa.
  5. Friends have better conversations.
  6. Friends have fun…and…we all know that life is better when we can laugh and enjoy ourselves!
  7. Friends support you, particularly when you’re going through a tough time.
  8. Friends help you expand your way of thinking by offering a new perspective and sharing different experiences.
  9. Friends challenge you. They see through your excuses and encourage you to keep going.
  10. Friends – real friends don’t take advantage of you! Karin Sieger, psychotherapist, says true friendships “are based on unconditional concern for the other. We do things for the other out of friendship not in order to gain anything.” (If you have people in your life that take advantage of you, perhaps now is a good time to spring clean your friend circle!)

Since embracing the idea that I can be friends with my staff, I have yet to find a valid reason to have any other relationship with the people I work with. Some of my greatest friends are people I’ve worked with, people I’ve experienced high highs and low low’s with. They are people I trust deeply and who let me know when I’ve behaved inappropriately or when I’ve been wallowing in self-pity. Ultimately, they have contributed to my success and the leader I am today.

Leadership can be hard and it can be lonely – but with friends who can support you, it doesn’t have to be.

Connect with Shelley here.

Shelley Flett is Premium member and an expert in leadership development and team performance, with over a decade of experience in operations and call centres across banking and telecommunications. Shelley is the Author of ‘The Dynamic Leader: Become the leader others are inspired to follow’ (Major Street Publishing $29.95).

Read next: 3 simple changes to increase your influence at work


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