There’s little debate over the importance of trust between individuals on a team and with the team’s leader. Without trust, high-performance is just a lofty ideal but not likely. And developing trust demands forming relationships. It’s the relationship-issue that is murky for many in leadership positions. How deep and personal can the connection be (within the bounds of propriety) before it becomes a problem for the leader and threatens the mission outcome?

Mostly, We Need More Trust and Better Relationships

In my travels, the lack of trust fostered by non-existent or stilted relationships is the larger of the problems on display. Two-dimensional leaders operating as automatons and treating employees as mechanical productivity machines are sadly, everywhere.

In workshops, I hear a great deal about distant, unfeeling bosses or relentless, micro-focused managers managing the motivation out of employees. Raise your hand if you’ve encountered this before. (My hand is raised.)

Let’s face it, a lot of people in leadership roles don’t care genuinely about people—they care about results. Ironically, their approach to not engaging at something beyond the machine-part level with people is a limiting factor in their ability to create the desired results.

However, Maintaining Objectivity is an Issue:

There’s another group of leaders that lack the callousness of the afore-mentioned types yet still desire to keep relationships at a “Good morning” and transactional or coaching level around daily work. Some of these types have suggested to me their distance isn’t an issue of not caring or wanting to be cold; it’s a matter of maintaining objectivity for the expected tough decisions.

If I’m too close to people on my team, it may bias my decision-making, and dull my speed and effectiveness in tough situations,” offered one leader.

Another offered: “I really care for these people, but I’m neither their parents or siblings, I’m their boss, accountable to my firm for results. I treat them with fairness and friendliness, but not friendship.

They make good points.

When the Relationship Endangers the Mission

I’ve observed plenty of situations where a boss’s relationship with a team member distorted decision-making. Think of cases where a manager hires a crony from a previous life, and everyone except the manager can see the person isn’t performing at a proper level. Or, remember other situations when there were two sets of rules for accountability, one for the boss’s favorite(s) and one for everyone else.

In difficult change situations, a too-deep relationship can blind a boss to the need to part ways to create space for individuals with the right skills for the new world. Heck, I know better, and in one later-career situation, I found myself trying to create roles for good people who lacked the needed abilities to carry us forward. Effectively, I tripped on the relationships.

Finding the Sweet Spot for Your Relationships with Team Members

If you lead others, you must cultivate the right form of relationship. Here are some guardrails to help you find the limits.

  1. People don’t want or need you as a friend. They’re looking to be led. Seriously. This means providing direction, parameters, and corrective action when needed.
  2. Individuals need to know that you respect them. You should treat every encounter as an opportunity to showcase this respect, including circumstances that merit coaching.
  3. Your team members need to know you trust them. Remember, without trust, high-performance is just a myth. Work to reinforce trust continually.
  4. In my experience, accountability is sacrosanct. Everyone must be accountable for living up to their commitments in their roles. Don’t operate with multiple sets of rules. Reinforce accountability constantly. (This goes double for you being accountable for your commitments!)
  5. Being a boss doesn’t have a 5:00 p.m. or Friday expiration. You’re a boss 24-hours per day, seven days per week.
  6. Being the boss doesn’t have an event expiration. If you’re the leader of a sales team, the evening social time at the national kick-off meeting or industry tradeshow isn’t the time or place to let your hair down and show you’re one of the gang. When you signed on to lead, you gave up your membership in the gang.
  7. People thrive when they know they are cared for. Supporting their growth and professional development is one of the highest and best forms of showing you care for someone.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

You are accountable for fair, fast decisions on people and issues. If you find yourself rationalizing behavior or slowing down because of an alleged friendship, you’ve strayed beyond the guardrails. It’s great to have a positive working relationship with your team members, but as soon as it endangers your ability to succeed with the mission, it’s time to rein things in and operate within the guardrails.

Art's Signature