Don’t Diminish Friendships | Establish Boundaries
“I feel like I am becoming more of a friend, and less of a boss.” Many leaders grapple to define relationships with their people. Most of us would like a comfortable, personal element in our relationships with our staff, but fear losing our authority and their respect. If we are going to progress successfully in leadership, we must settle the question:
Should we develop friendships with our people or remain strictly their bosses?
Traditional wisdom dictates that smart leaders distance themselves from their staff. The theory is that if you become too close to people, then they will no longer listen to or respect you. If you become their friend, then they will eventually run all over you. If we operate with this thinking, the result is that we lose our effectiveness to connect with people.
I’ve got to admit though, this was a major struggle for me in my early years of leadership. I liked to be nice to people. I wanted to be their friend, but then I often felt taken advantage of in my relationships. Over time, I discovered I was asking the wrong question. “Should we develop friendships with our people or remain strictly their bosses?” presupposes that you can only be one or the other. The truth is that we should be both.
Naturally questions arise, such as: Is it possible to be their friend and their boss? How close can we get to our people? And can we maintain authority and friendship? Here are the answers I unearthed.
I am not the boss.
Words matter. Tucked within the ethos of our words are deep layers of subtext that reveal and define our thinking. The words we choose impact the heart of our relationships.
Even though I sign the checks; even though I have the power to hire and fire; I am no one’s boss. I am no one’s master. Instead of “boss,” I choose these words to describe my relationships (not just when I am talking to or about the people I work with, but also when I think about them):
- Partner: This is probably one of my favorites. Partners choose to work together. And they choose to stay together. There is a different level of commitment and freedom when you are in partnership with one another. To me, the CEO and the young entry level staff member should view each other as partners: two people choosing to work together to accomplish a common goal.
- Friend: Yes, I am friends with everyone who reports to me. As friends, I share with them personal matters and invite them to do the same. We laugh together. We have a good time. With some, I occasionally spend time together outside of work; with others I don’t.
- Family: I like to view the people who work with me as my family. It helps me to view everyone as a part of a close and loving family.
- Work with me not for me: I like to avoid words that separate me from others. When you work for me, I am immediately placed above you, away from you. We cannot press on and journey forward, unless you work with me.
When you place distance between yourself and others, your leadership will be limited. And the culture of your organization will be disempowered. So as we wrestle with the dilemma of how close we should get to our people, I highly recommend that you think of everyone who reports to you as partner, friend, and family.
That leads us to question…How then are you taken seriously? How do you get your people to listen to you and respect your authority?
Let me ask you something: Do your friends (in your personal life) respect you? Does your family listen to you? And if you have a partner, are they responsive to what you ask of them?
I hope that this is true for you. My closest friends and family respect me. Otherwise we would not be friends, nor would we be family. Healthy friends and families have more respect for one another than most people they know. If this is not the case for you, I would encourage you to begin cultivating personal relationships in which respect, listening, and responding are reciprocal. Friendship does not imply there are no rules. Friends and families who love one another extend much latitude to each other. They serve one another. At the same time, healthy friendships and family relationships must also have boundaries.
I am very close with my brothers. A while back, I told a small lie to my brother. I thought he was asking about something too personal, so I averted the truth. Of course I felt bad about it, and I knew it was wrong. He called me out on it. He said, “Walid (my given name), we will not have trust if we lie to each other.” I had crossed a boundary. He was mature enough and courageous enough to speak up to me about it. Our love for one another did not decrease, nor did our friendship. But had he kept it in and chose not address it, then it could have caused damage to our relationship.
Here’s the key. Don’t diminish your friendships with others; learn how to create boundaries. Too many leaders don’t know how to establish boundaries, so the only option is to subscribe to traditional advice by pulling away. When you pull away, unhealthy boundaries are naturally created.
I don’t feel as if I have to constantly police my boundaries. I’m not daring someone to cross a line with me. Boundaries are in place for when someone wanders away from what is acceptable or expected in the relationship. I want to live in a place of love and friendship. I want to foster partnerships with people.
But friends, if we do not know how to draw boundaries and speak up, if we are too shy, or avoid confrontation, it is difficult to maintain a connection with the people we work with. Instead, we position ourselves to be constantly hurt by everyone.
Like most, I dislike confrontation. It is very uncomfortable for me. But I have learned to accept that occasionally defining boundaries must be a natural element of healthy relationships. I approach confrontation my way: Gently. Kindly. Strategically. And I always keep people as close as possible.
I hope I was able to make an argument that we don’t have to choose friendship or respect. It must be both.
Actionable Step: Learn how to speak up when needed by talking to people who do this successfully, and let them teach you. Only then, can you keep people close to you as your partners and friends.
What I am reading now: Practicing Excellence by Stephen Beeson, MD. Dr. Beeson, a family doctor and nationally renowned thought leader on excellence in healthcare, discusses how physicians and medical practices can lead their organizations to a better place in the area of patient care.
For Further Reading: