Leaders are often encouraged to strengthen their relationships with individual members of their teams. The better you know a person, the more successfully you can motivate them to perform and guide their development.
But leaders can get too close. Close bonds, even if they remain strictly professional, can invoke emotional responses. And that can prevent both sides from achieving their goals.
Couples have their attorneys handle a divorce for this reason: a level head is necessary to get results, but you can’t focus on what matters because emotions run high. Become too friendly with your people, and you could likewise compromise your best judgment.
It seems as though leaders must figure out where to draw the line in terms of employee relationships. But instead of a fixed boundary, what if you could keep things in a loosely defined zone that’s easier to recognize and handle?
Leveraging the engagement effect
Relationships take a lot of work to develop and maintain. Some leaders don’t find the effort worthwhile. Constantly maintaining a healthy distance in the leader-employee relationship is the least fussy option.
This approach isn’t necessarily a bad one, as far as results are concerned. A lot of people can work well with minimal supervision. Few workers actually expect to become chummy with their bosses.
But a strong relationship matters because of employee engagement. This phenomenon makes people go above and beyond for their organization, applying discretionary effort towards their work.
When engaged, people exercise their agency and autonomy to address issues on their own. They feel more satisfied with their jobs and manage conflicts better. In turn, this reduces the stress you feel from management burdens.
Disengaged employees might be getting the job done, but their level of performance and satisfaction will have less to do with your leadership. They might develop within your organization, but they could just as easily leave for growth opportunities elsewhere. As the saying goes, people don’t leave jobs. They leave managers.
Too close for comfort
An engaged employee’s potential value is a reminder of why many leaders strive to get closer to the people who work for them. Yet problems can, and often do, arise from such well-intentioned efforts.
Research shows that bonding too closely can change how workers prioritize tasks. They focus more on long-term mutual benefits in the relationship and actually demonstrate less engagement during, and shortly after, daily exchanges with their managers.
Employees might become too comfortable around their boss. When assigned a task, they might not treat it with the same urgency as if some distance had been maintained in the relationship.
Managers also need to beware the risks of over-sharing of information. Getting to know a worker doesn’t mean taking on the role of therapist. Going to after-hours parties with the team might mean seeing your people behave too loosely, which could detract from the way you view and respect them professionally.
The problems could also be felt on the other side. Some employees might be turned off by what they perceive as an intrusion into their personal life. In an age of growing concern over digital privacy, there are many complications surrounding something as innocuous as a Facebook friend request from your manager.
Keeping relationships stretched
There may be a better way to navigate this complex issue. Something less cut-and-dried than an absolute rule on the manager’s part, such as ‘never get too close to your people,’ or the opposite extreme, ‘we’re all family here.’
In learning and development, Rohnke’s zone model is used to help encourage people to grow. The key to this application lies in knowing how to avoid panic and comfort zones, finding the desirable middle or stretch zone.
This model can be useful as a guide to leader-employee relationships because it lets you go with your gut. You know what being stretched feels like: slight discomfort but not on the level of provoking a fight-or-flight response.
People can step between the stretch and comfort zones, as needed, for a respite. There may be times when you can indulge in a more relaxed manner around your employees. But you always bring things back to the stretch zone so that ultimately, results aren’t compromised.
Stop thinking of relationships as having fixed boundaries but fluid ones. Instead of constantly trying to walk that fine line, focus your awareness on that feeling of minor discomfort.
Maintain that edge, and you can still get close enough to your employees to engage them. The stretch they feel will push them to progress in their development without burning them out.