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Leadership Thought #241 – Be Careful About Becoming Too Close To Your Employees

November 4, 2011

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Leaders must be careful about becoming too close to their employees.  It is easy to get wrapped up in someone else’s personal life especially if you’ve known someone for a long time.  There is a significant difference between being a friend and being an employer or boss.  The nature of the employer-employee relationship is transactional – people are paid to do a job.  Without the exchange of time for money the relationship wouldn’t exist.  Moreover, it is much more difficult to hold a friend accountable or if necessary, fire them.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about your people or be devoid of all empathy.  Everyone prefers to work in an environment where they feel they matter and have value.   However, performance does still matter and should be the basis of the relationship.  I advise my clients to think in terms of building a workplace that is a meritocracy where most of your rewards and attention goes to your top performers.  If someone who has a long history of loyalty and performance hits a personal rough patch and stumbles, then you should be more understanding and supportive, but this type of relationship should be earned not expected.

Have you ever noticed that top employees very rarely blur the lines between their work and home life?  This doesn’t mean they don’t have issues, but they deal with them like adults and don’t make them your problem. They are interested in earning the respect of their colleagues and employers but don’t necessarily feel the need for this to become more than a professional relationship. Typically, people who are struggling will offer any number of excuses as to why they are not performing and will have unrealistic expectations of understanding and support.  Their personal vulnerability will quickly turn to resentment and anger if you do not respond in ways, they deem sufficient.

Please don’t take this advice as grounds for becoming aloof or cold.  A certain level of empathy is required in all relationships.  You should care about your employees and consciously strive to build an environment where they thrive and feel supported.  However, never allow them or you to get comfortable with the idea that the good of the company or requirements of their position are secondary to the needs of the business.  Be careful about becoming too close to your employees or direct reports.