How to be a Friendly Boss and effective Leader


Question: Dear VitalSmarts India,

I’ve been told that one cannot be an effective boss by being a friend to those one supervises. I have some serious concerns about this as I feel that being a friend at work is a good way to gain employee confidence and performance.

I’m concerned about where to draw the line between being a friend and being a boss, and how to set the proper environment where friendship is allowed and being a boss is respected. How can I be both an effective boss and also a friend to my employees?

Subodh Mehra

Answers: Dear Subodh,boss vs leader

The challenge you’ve presented is the perfect example of a Fool’s Choice. What we mean by this is that we can only see two options that seem diametrically opposed. We don’t see it as a false dichotomy, but as an unfortunate reality. We found these Fool’s Choices to be ubiquitous when doing our research for Crucial Conversations. For example, we commonly heard people say things like, “I can speak up and be mean, or I can bite my tongue and be nice.” They felt they could be candid or courteous, but not both. Those who mastered crucial conversations found the “and.” They learned how to be candid and courteous. And so it is with managing or leading. In this bit of advice, I’ll try to help you see that you can be friendly and be a boss.

I’ll start with a story that shows one extreme of the term “boss.” I recall a leader telling me that when he was promoted, his boss gave him this advice: “Congratulations. Now get out there and fire a person or two so the rest of your team will know that you have power.” This is clearly a bad example. This person’s manager had a perception of leadership that focused on control, power, and even intimidation. From our research, we know that some people value quality over harmony; they value getting results over getting along. They value performance indicators like productivity and budget.

Another leader I know was told by her boss, “Don’t give praise to people for doing their job. It only makes them weak.” One of the reasons people find themselves in this Fool’s Choice comes from seeing bosses manage in this manner. And understandably, they don’t want to be like that.

Some people move to this extreme style of management because they have seen the consequences of bosses who are too friendly—who value getting along more than getting results. Unlike their results-driven counterparts, these friendly bosses fear being the bad guy to the degree that they fail to hold people accountable or press for continuous improvement. On the other hand, their birthday celebrations are superb and they highly value performance indicators like morale and job satisfaction. I should point out that there is a long line of leadership research that shows the negative consequences of managing in either of these extreme ways.

What we found from studying leaders and team members is that the best performers don’t fall into the trap of managing on one end of the continuum or the other. They value getting results and getting along. They value quality and productivity as much as they value harmony. They can clarify high expectations and rally a team to be both motivated and able to accomplish them. They can have tough, honest, candid conversations with care and courtesy. They have found the “and.” They know how to be both friendly and highly productive bosses.

So here is some specific advice to help you find your “and.”

1. Don’t fall for the Fool’s Choice:

There are more options than being a boss or being a friend. You can value accountability and morale; you can find ways to get input and get execution. Get out of this trap by moving to dialogue—with your own boss and with your team.

2. Clarify how you can work to achieve both purposes:

Put two columns on a sheet of paper. In one column, brainstorm together and clarify what tactics and measures you could use to make sure that key indicators like productivity, schedule, quality, and budget are being met. How will you set clear goals? How will people be held accountable? How will you deal with setbacks or gaps? In the next column, clarify the more people-centric measures and tactics. What goals will you set? How will you measure job satisfaction and morale? How will you praise people and celebrate successes? The outcome of this exercise will not only be clarity and balance, but you will also get beyond the Fool’s Choice.

3. Determine who does what by when and follow up:

Good plans with frequent follow up give your boss, your team, and yourself confidence that there will be accountability and that nothing will fall through the cracks. Also, good plans help you know the specific steps and expectations you have to help you accomplish the results that make for a “friendly” workplace.

In closing, I want to share an observation that I’ve had many times over the years. Sometimes our greatest strengths can become a weakness. For example, if the manager is the most experienced and expert person in the room, she can sometimes hear points of information from her team, and then jump to a conclusion that skips three additional points. Her speed of thinking now leaves half or more of the team in the dark. The boss says, “Here’s what we’ll do…” and moves to the next issue. Her strength (speed and problem solving) has become a weakness because her team would describe her as controlling and impatient. To apply this to your case, don’t let your friendliness slide into missing deadlines, overspending budgets, or not holding people accountable. And don’t let your firm management style slide into not praising, involving, or smiling. The choice is yours.

I wish you well,
VitalSmarts India