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The fine line between a friend and a boss

Traditionally, power distances in family business tended to be high.  Employees had two unwritten rules.  One- ‘speak only when spoken to’ and Two- ‘the boss is always right’.  That’s still not uncommon in both family and non-family businesses.  Yet, power distances have reduced.  Some next-gen leaders believe in going in the opposite direction.  You need to be buddies with your employees for them to reach their potential, they say.  So, being back-slapping buddies with your employees is the way to maximize performance.

So, what’s the correct way?  As with anything, extremes aren’t great.  Extremes here are ‘autocracy’- management with a stick and ‘buddy-cracy’- management through being buddies.  This article examines the middle path (if one exists).

Which gets your work done on time?

A key advantage of an autocracy is that employees start ascribing significant value to anything the leader says.  Since it isn’t common, the value when they are spoken to is significant.  So, if given clear directions to do something by a deadline, chances are they’ll get it done.  Timeliness of output in a buddy-cracy is a bit more variable.  And if its late, shouldn’t you ‘forgive-and-forget’ your buddies mistakes?

And which gives better quality?

In an ideal world, there’s no gap between what one person says and another person understands.  In the real world, there can be an abyss between the two.  Employees sometimes need many interactions with their boss to understand exactly what they need to do.  The quality of those interactions is often the difference between mediocre and great output.  In an autocracy, the limited interactions can reduce output quality.

A ‘buddy-cracy’ doesn’t perform much better on quality.  The kinder governance is great, but it can also set up the organization for mediocrity.  Average work can get justified and overlooked.  And the much-required push for excellence is lacking.

And the middle path is?

People are built to be a part of a group.  Various studies show that feeling comfortable or having psychological safety is a key to workplace satisfaction and success. Psychological safety is the ability to share thoughts and opinions or ask questions without the fear of repercussions.

That said, friendships (most of them!) are built on equal authority.  It’s great for a work culture to encourage leaders to know more about their employees.  Yet, that doesn’t mean getting entangled in their personal lives.  Also, employees should recognize that while ideas can be shared democratically, the leader has the right to call the shots.

We have a natural tendency to be friendly with a certain type of personality.  Buddy-cracy creates (or creates the perception of) favourites based on employee’s personalities.  Not on their performance.  Maintaining some distance mitigates this risk.

And most importantly, its difficult confronting a buddy about poor performance.  You’ll likely lose a friendship as well as have an awkward situation at work.

So, be casual but not friends.  Encourage opinions but reserve the right to make solo decisions. Know their hobbies, but not their vices.  Trust but have robust checks and balances.  Aristotle said – “A friend to all is a friend to none”.  While he said that in a different context, it’s a great guiding principle.  If you are equally friendly with every employee, you don’t need to worry about becoming buddies with any one employee.

Closing thoughts

Employees should feel good around you and know you value them.  They should be comfortable making their opinions known.  And know that you will support them in their personal issues, to the extent it impacts their professional life.  But be sure to draw boundaries.  For e.g. tell an employee if you feel conversations are becoming too personal.

It’s lonely at the top.  But don’t make an employee a best buddy.  There are other ways of dealing with loneliness. At the other extreme, don’t be an autocrat.  Neither extreme is good for you or your business.

What has been your experience with your employees? Are you more bossy or friendly? What have been the challenges you faced? Comment below or write to / call me on or +91-9322737127

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