Great Boss: Friendship

This is the final post in my series:  the Qualities that made my Best Boss “Great”

When I was learning to manage I often received advice that I should “keep my distance” from subordinates.  Even after years of experience as a manager, this was an often repeated mantra.  The logic of it, such as it is, states:  A manager must maintain a separation from subordinates, which allows for greater objectivity and won’t result in any hesitation to fire or otherwise discipline when necessary.

Such thinking does a great disservice to employees and managers alike.

Seriously, as a manager you’re supposed to spend 40+ hours with these people every week and NOT develop any emotional attachment?  Sure, a few will help you out by being jerks that you wouldn’t want to befriend in a hundred years, but most are good people worthy of a tight relationship with the boss.  You don’t have to be their “best friend at work” (a nod to Gallup for this concept, which is a part of their Q12 survey), but there’s absolutely no need to be standoffish.

I will discuss later in this post that when close friendships develop, the awkwardness and emotional trauma of managing future problems (terminations or discipline) can actually be reduced.

Is he arrogant, or does he just hate me?

One of my early bosses was a good example of conventional boss-subordinate relationship management.  He isolated himself from his direct reports and maintained a gruff exterior that made him seem completely unapproachable.  He had several “back-slap and laugh” friendships with peers – these always seemed superficial to me.  Of course, his peers were also his competitors when it came to moving further up the ladder, which would have made developing real friendships quite difficult.  His own boss was as distant as he was.

Work couldn’t have been a lot of fun for him.

True work friendship involves casual time spent together for reasons other than a specific business purpose, and a degree of mutual disclosure that exposes a person to some risk if the friend turned out to be a faker (which is a real risk in corporate relationships).  Most “work friendships” are what I’ve sometimes called “friendships of convenience.”  Such relationships have almost no depth to them and are usually entered into and terminated based on who you’re around on a regular basis and who might be “useful” in the immediate future.

The first of three EMPOWERED cover-inspiring photos

The first of three EMPOWERED cover-inspiring photos

This boss acted pretty much as you would expect an adherent to conventional wisdom would act – he was distant, a bit cold, and was quick to offer criticism when he didn’t approve of how one was approaching a project or problem.  He was hard to like, impossible to love, and definitely less than inspiring when it came to rallying the group or leading us toward a common goal.

Did my work suffer as a result?  Not much.  I was young and full of enthusiasm for my job.  I would have labored hard for anyone at that point.  My boss might have been better able to direct my efforts with a little more sugar and a little less vinegar, but overall I was still willing to put in the hours.

I can’t say the same for my peers, however.  Two of them actively disliked the boss and took every opportunity to mock and undermine him when his back was turned.  This eventually spilled over to others when the pair supplied plenty of negative comments and observations to the boss’s detractors (others in management) – something that certainly didn’t help my boss’s career.  A third peer simply tried to keep as far away from the boss as possible, handling his assignment as if he reported to no one most of the time.  This led to decisions that were sometimes at odds with the company’s larger objectives.

My conclusion (reached years later):  “Keeping his distance” substantially undermined this boss’s career.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing

Another boss I had many years later had a completely different take on how to handle relationships with subordinates – he faked them.

This boss was much higher in management than the first supervisor I described, and he’d learned a few tricks of the trade along the way.  By nature he was a person who was very aware of his image and over the years he’d developed a carefully constructed mask that he used to protect his reputation.  When one interacted with him, it was almost always with the mask and rarely with the real person.

Cover-inspiring photo #2

Cover-inspiring photo #2

On the surface, he was friendly, welcoming, engaging, and outgoing.  I heard outsiders remark what a “great person to work for” he must be (man, were they mistaken.)  He appeared to be open to the kind of friendship I knew from past experience could make work a pure pleasure rather than a dull chore.

But this was far from the truth.  It took a few months of direct interaction, but I eventually realized there was an alter ego behind the mask – introverted, impatient, a harsh judge, and vindictive.  And while his normal demeanor was pleasant enough, there were times he (partially) let his guard down and a vicious politician made an appearance.

There could be no authentic friendship with this man.  Mutual disclosure would be one way, and anything you said would definitely be used against you if it served his purposes.

I grew to loath working for this executive, and I wasn’t alone.  Even though relationships between peers were tentative in such an environment, I eventually discovered that all my peers disliked him – some even held the man in contempt despite his high level of achievement and obvious, great intelligence.

This had several, noticeable impacts on our performance.  Suspicion of the boss and his motives led us to be suspicious of one another.  Plenty of political maneuvering went on and my peers often found themselves working at cross-purposes.  For my part, I hated interacting with the boss, and so tended to keep things to myself.  This worked to my detriment on more than one occasion when he proved he was more than willing to “throw people under the bus” if outcomes were anything less than what was expected.

Ultimately, there was a high rate of turnover within his group of subordinates, although admittedly as much of it a result of his own political maneuvering as voluntary quits.

A true friendship

By contrast, my best boss became a true friend.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, he was open to friendship from the start.  I detected no fakery in his manner – no “man behind the curtain.”  Instead he was 100% authentic in his interactions.

That authenticity included quickly navigating a path through progressive mutual disclosure.  I learned his opinion about his boss and the CEO of the company, and he understood my career ambitions and my strengths and limitations.  We spent time together outside of work and our families even spent time together (despite a substantial difference in age and position in life.)  I had never experienced this kind of friendship before, and I responded positively to it.

I looked forward to work each day.  When I was able to work on something with my boss, it was even better.  Without the friendship, I suspect I would have benefited less from all the other great qualities he brought to the table.  Friendship opened me up to a greater degree of learning.

He maintained friendly relations with most of his subordinates.  Some of his former direct reports, who were scattered throughout the company – his relationships with them having been established earlier in their careers, when they’d both worked elsewhere – helped him with intelligence gathering and steering the organization’s strategy.  Without relationships that involved deep trust and respect, he would have never been able to achieve some of the victories he managed.

I never saw him betrayed by any of these friends.  Not even once.  Nor did I ever see him betray one, despite the fact that he sometimes had to make unpleasant calls when it came to their job assignments or careers.

Firing a friend?

Photo #3

Photo #3

As I noted at the beginning of this post, the biggest objection to boss-subordinate friendships appears to be that they interfere with making “tough calls.”

Within my own experience I can assure you that hasn’t been the case.

After my working for my greatest boss, I began actively cultivating friendships with my subordinates.  While I was never as good at it as he was, I ended up with a number of relationships that have survived departures from the company (mine or the subordinate’s).

In one instance, I was called upon to make a deep cut in employment due to an unexpected economic downturn.  This included firing two people on my direct staff.

One of the two I selected (based solely on business needs) was a close friend, the other not so much.  I actually found it much easier to let the friend go.  He already understood the economic situation as a result of previous conversations, and we were able to have a calm, rational discussion about how I could make the transition as easy as possible.  While it was far from pleasant, we worked through the situation and the friendship survived the event.

The other employee had been cultivating a relationship with my boss, and thought he was “untouchable.”  As a result, he was caught unaware when I let him know he was being terminated.  He was angry, bitter, and ended up losing his temper.  Needless to say we didn’t sort out any kind of “smooth transition.”  The entire episode was emotionally draining, and for years afterward, the former subordinate was angry with me.

Odds are these exact circumstances would not be repeated again.  But I believe that a close relationship would still make implementing the “tough call” easier, no matter what the employee’s predisposition might be.  Other, similar, experiences have borne this out.


Recent Cartoon-ization of my image.  Click on it to see my weekly writing journal

Recent Cartoon-ization of my image.  Click on it to see my weekly writing journal

Over the past thirteen weeks I’ve examined the various behaviors and characteristics that made my best boss a great person to work for.  When you roll all these capabilities into a single person, you can undoubtedly see that he was a formidable manager, a man with many years of experience and plenty of hard-won wisdom that guided his actions.

Yet he wasn’t perfect.

My greatest boss became my supervisor after he was fired from his previous job.  The business he ran was sold by the corporate parent to a foreign-owned company that didn’t understand or appreciate his style.  Within a relatively short time he was out of a job.

Which just goes to show that a boss who performs at an exceptionally high level, having the ability to assemble and motivate a strong team, can still be vulnerable if she doesn’t effectively manage upward.

Being a great boss can be rewarding, satisfying, and even fun.  But it is not enough by itself to insure success – at least not if your goal is to climb all the way to the top of the corporate ladder.

Other posts in the Greatest Boss Series (in Chronological Order):

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Here is the cover for my latest novel, EMPOWERED, which was released in ebook and paperback versions on October 12, 2014.  EMPOWERED is the story of newly hired division president Colin Jensen, and his investigation into unexplained performance problems in the shipping department of TruePhase Chemicals division.  The story is set in Indianapolis during a blizzard, and takes its inspiration from the television series Undercover Boss.  As always, there are a few plot twists that I hope will surprise and entertain the reader.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.