How friendly should you be with your employees?

Leaders discuss where the boundary between professional and personal lies.

by Orianna Rosa Royle
Last Updated: 24 Sep 2020

In an age where employees and employers connect on various social media platforms (a space once reserved for private friends) and peek into each other's living space on Zoom calls, the lines between boss and friend are slowly blurring.

And when you spend more time with your team than your own family, it’s hard to not form a bond with each other: you were the shoulder to lean on when Jack’s brother died of cancer and the mentor championing Sagal’s growth in the firm.

On the one hand strong friendships with your team can strengthen company culture and workplace satisfaction.

On the other, being too friendly with your team can lead to doubts around favouritism and make it hard to give honest feedback. Tough decisions can become even more painful once you lift the veil on an employee's private life and understand the ramifications of a redundancy on them and their family.

We asked various business leaders where the balance lies for them.


Paul Russell, managing director, Luxury Academy

You should aim to be friendly enough for your employees to like you but not friendly enough for staff to consider you a drinking buddy. When I work with managers, I hear, ‘I’m not here to win a popularity contest’, all of the time but this is a complete fallacy. As a leader, you certainly do have to win a popularity contest in that your employees have to like you. People work better for people they like, admire and trust. We elect our politicians based on the popular vote and it’s no different in the workplace. Be friendly, be approachable and a good person to work for whilst maintaining appropriate professional boundaries, and you will achieve the right level of friendliness with your team.

Michelle Chikanda, founder, The Influential Me

Friendship in its purest form is about transparency, support and sometimes cheering each other on even when you're doing something wrong (like plotting revenge on a horrible ex). It's hard to translate this version of friendship in a work context. You can't always be loyal, especially when being transparent is not 'good for the business' and you absolutely cannot cheer on bad behaviour.

But there is a utopian middle ground alternative. This alternate friendship requires a mutual implicit and explicit understanding that there can't always be transparency or support and bad behaviour must be treated with serious caution.

Anna Baréz-Brown, co-founder, Shine

I’ve found being friends with colleagues only makes my working life easier. This working culture ensures a pre-established level of trust, leaving less room for people to blame and complain. Communication is easier and you’re more likely to hold similar values. Often there’s ample opportunity to mix with people you wouldn’t normally come across, making it the perfect place to expand your horizons. Being friendly still means you’re the boss, as the buck stops with you. Simply treating colleagues as employees runs the risk of creating a toxic us/them culture.

Ultimately, as people we crave compassion, recognition, self-awareness and interaction. I’m a fan of all-encompassing leaders who treat their employees as friends and are human, just like the rest of the team.

Keiron Sparrowhawk, founder, MyCognition PRO

Bosses that get too close to their employees risk losing respect if things go wrong. This can happen particularly if you go out drinking a lot together, know everyone’s secrets or show particular interest in a small clique. Think of the iconic David Brent - desperate to please everyone and be everyone’s best friend but a terrible manager. In order to maintain that level of respect, it’s best to create some form of distance. Be self-aware at all times. Relax but don’t relax too much. Give information away in order to bond with them, but not too much.

Ben Harper, founder and CEO, Meet Hugo

The fact of the matter is, if you’re too close to certain members of the team your personal feelings can interfere with how you manage your professional interactions. It’s your job to lead a team toward a common goal that serves the interests of the business. At times this may mean you may need to be a shoulder to cry on, a mentor or a disciplined authority when things aren’t going in the right direction. All of these things can be much more difficult, if there isn’t the appropriate distance between you and your team to be impartial.

There’s nothing wrong with socialising with the team outside of work (in fact, extracurricular activity can be a fantastic way to bond) but there should always be an expectation that these interactions remain professional.

Karen Emanuel, CEO, Key Production Group

When I started in business, I was young and my company was small. We were all friends within the company and enjoyed socialising in the evening together. Whilst this was lovely and is probably how the Key Production “family” started with our strong company culture in development, it proved very awkward and upsetting when I had to make some tough decisions during the big crash in 2007. As the company grew, I had to change some of the relationships with long-term staff members to be able to operate well as a team leader.

Arjun Thaker, CEO at Trident Worldwide

There is a fine line between being friendly as a manager and being too personal. But maintaining the right balance can be done. As a manager we’re there for the team by showing empathy but what we’re also there to lead, which means you’re not always going to please everybody. Striking an equilibrium between strong leadership and a personal approach means your employees feel they can come to you with concerns whilst also respecting your position as management.

Karen Meager and John McLachlan, monkey puzzle training and consultancy

This isn’t always a choice, especially if the team leader is newly promoted from within an existing team where friendships are already in place. A team leader needs to find their own leadership style but any attempt to be overly assertive risks jeopardising friendships which will destabilise the team. Boundaries will need to be established. You’ll need to be direct and polite, develop the confidence to say no without feeling the need to over-explain and be able to close off conversations in a way that makes it clear what you’d like to do. Developing consistency in actions and body language is a good way to help your team recognise what the leadership version of you looks like. Leadership can be a lonely place; friendships can add support - just as long as the lines are clear.

Nick Farnhill, CEO, Publicis Poke

If we spend at least a third of our lives working, surely you want to know and relate personally to the people you work alongside. I’d propose that we should all expect to turn up each day, whether in person or on a video call, to a friendly workplace. A place with humanity and with teams that want to know how their colleagues are and what makes them tick. Teams that actively promote this type of working environment will empathise with each other, build support structures and work as a team to find opportunities, win new work and take on challenges effectively.

Friendships will naturally flourish and deep bonds will form in settings that promote these working relationships and behaviours, but it takes a level of maturity and sophistication to define and maintain personal boundaries – you don’t need to be best friends with everyone to show that you care.

Image credit: 10'000 Hours via Getty Images

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