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Most of us, at some point, will either have led or been led by someone that we considered to be a close friend. But what impact does friendship have on the working relationship? Can leaders really maintain close friendships with those they lead? And what guidelines should be followed when learning how to lead a friend?
For the purposes of this, I have considered ‘friendship’ to be: a relationship in which both parties meet on a regular basis, outside of working hours; where the primary purpose for meeting is to engage in non-work related activities or discussion.
Friendships between a leader and a member/s of their team can have a significant negative impact on team cohesion and effectiveness. A leader’s personal commitment to impartiality alone is unfortunately not enough to prevent this happening. As a leader, it is critical that you acknowledge this, understand how this negativity can take hold and put steps in place to prevent it.
Many leaders make the mistake of believing that as long as they maintain impartiality, a friendship with a member of their team cannot possibly impact the rest of the team’s performance. Whilst this stance is no doubt honourable and well-intended, it fails to take into account the complexity of team dynamics. A team’s level of success is directly impacted by the level of trust that exists within that team. A team who do not trust one another will not be a high-performing team. But people are naturally wary. Evolution has taught us to be on our guard, particularly when faced with new and unfamiliar situations. A good reputation alone is not enough to gain the trust of a team. You may well have previously demonstrated credibility, shown that you do what you say you will and that you hold yourself and others to account, (that is probably the reason you were given the position as leader), but having an existing friendship with somebody you must now lead changes the dynamics. And as the dynamics have changed, inevitably so will your teams’ perception of you. You are essentially starting from scratch. The team are likely to be questioning whether or not your friend will be party to information that they are not, whether you might be more lenient on your friend and whether your friend is more likely to be promoted that they are. The negative impact that arises from such uncertainty and lack of trust is only heightened as team members almost always choose not to voice their concerns openly, but to discuss them amongst themselves. For the leader already struggling with how to lead a friend, these behaviours can make them lose confidence and leave them feeling isolated.
Building trust in any team is something that must be established over a period of time, but there are steps that a leader can put in place from the outset which will lay the foundations for a culture of trust. This is especially important where the leader’s trustworthiness is perhaps already in question, as in the situation where the leader has an existing friendship with somebody they will be leading.
1. Address issues head on – Do not assume that because you have no intention of letting a personal relationship impact on work relationships that others will be thinking the same thing. Get the team together and discuss it. Make sure the team are clear on your principles and intentions. Give them a chance to ask questions. In so doing, you will be creating a culture of openness, in which team members will feel able to discuss any issue with you. This applies to any underlying issues that are causing friction within the team.
2. Provide absolute clarity – Make sure your team are clear on their direction, their goals, on team boundaries and what is expected of them. They should know what success looks like and should understand what the consequences are for everybody if they fail.
3. Consider how you will maintain objectivity and avoid bias – You need to be conscious of your existing relationship/s and aware of how they could impact on the decisions you make as the leader. There will, without doubt, be times when you feel compromised and you need to be aware of this and have some idea of how you will react in such a situation. Ultimately, you must accept that there is a possibility that the friendship might not survive. This is particularly so when an individual is promoted to leader and their friend feels that they should have been considered or even given the job.
4. Maintain boundaries/confidentiality – Keep to your word and lead by example. Do not share information with your friend that you would not be prepared to share with the rest of the team. Talk to your friend/s and between you agree some boundaries as to how you will discuss work topics. Be careful not to go the other way and be harder on your friend in an attempt to demonstrate that you’re not showing favouritism – the friendship is unlikely to survive.
5. Hold people to account – Trust is built when people know where they stand, what to expect and they believe in what they are doing. If your team see that you hold yourself and every other team member equally to account they will be more engaged and more effective, both individually and as a team. Whether leaders can really maintain close friendships with those they lead is a question still open to debate. From my own experience I’ve seen it work well and I’ve seen it fail spectacularly. Certainly in order for it to work, both the leader and the friend/s they are leading must be able to separate the two relationships. But there are always other factors that play a part; external factors that force the individuals involved into difficult situations where perhaps only one relationship can survive.
If you’re struggling with how to lead a friend, or with any other aspect of leadership, then take a look at our leadership solutions: