Having discussed this topic with a few thousand managers over the last few decades, I can assure you that this is a controversial topic. How close should a leader get to employees? Where should you draw the line?

Here’s a commonly held, and frequently taught, point of view: Don’t get too close. Keep your distance for the following reasons:

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Familiarity breeds contempt. If you get too close, employees will lose respect for you.
You might have to discipline some of these people, and if you’re too close your relationship will interfere. Close relationships will cloud your judgment.
Employees might take advantage of you.
You could be accused of favoritism if you develop close relationships with some employees but not others.

Those risks are real. However, the benefits of cultivating close relationships with employees far outweigh the drawbacks. Let’s consider the drawbacks mentioned above.

Familiarity breeds contempt. This catchy phrase is repeated so often people accept it as true. It has a ring to it, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it is patently false. If it were true, the people closest to you — friends and family — would hold you in contempt! Stop repeating this and stop letting it guide your actions with employees.

You might have to discipline some of these people and close relationships will interfere. Yes, close relationships make it unpleasant to discipline others. But think of parents who have good, healthy relationships with their children. Those close relationships don’t prevent discipline, even when it is unpleasant. You are in 100% control of whether you allow a relationship to prevent you from doing your job as a leader. If people lose respect for you it’s not due to a relationship, it’s because you are not doing your job.

You could be accused of favoritism. Here’s a reality check. If you have several employees reporting to you now, you already have favorites no matter where you draw the line on relationships. If you think your people haven’t noticed, you’re mistaken. You have better chemistry with some people than you do with others. You’re human. People don’t have a problem with this. As I said above, they have a problem when you don’t do your job.

Let’s now consider the benefits of developing close relationships (I include true friendship here) with employees.

Influence

As a leader you must influence others to pursue goals and behave in ways that benefit the organization and the employees. Trust is a monumentally important factor in influencing others. If you are a person of good character, getting close to employees builds trust. The closer you are to any particular person, the easier it is to influence them.

Motivation

People with whom you have close relationships will go the extra mile for you. Think about your closest friends. What you do for them just because they asked? What would they do for you? When a leader has close relationships with employees, they will put forth extra effort when she asks.

Mutual support and teamwork

Close relationships hold people together during difficult times. They want to be there for each other. They don’t want to let each other down. When relationships are good, it’s easier to resolve problems.

Morale

Morale is better when people look forward to working with their friends. Better morale contributes to better business results.

Retention

People in close, positive relationships truly care about each other. Leaders who truly care about their people earn their loyalty and improve retention.

Developing close relationships, whether personal or professional, involves risk. You can get hurt. One can completely avoid those risks by avoiding close relationships. I believe that in both personal and professional lives, the risks are well worth the benefits.

When it comes to relationships with employees, you will draw the line wherever you want. BUT you don’t have to draw one at all.

Thanks for reading. I welcome your views.

Larry Sternberg
President
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