Separating leadership and friendship

By Suzanne Peterson  Associate Professor of Management One of the more courageous decisions leaders have to make revolves around how to separate friendship from leadership. This situation arises most typically when a leader is promoted from the ranks of a peer group. All of a sudden, your co-workers/teammates/friends are your direct reports. The worry is that if you change your behavior too much post-promotion, then your former peers will think you are being high and mighty and will distance themselves from you. On the other hand, if you don't change enough, they might not respect you or will question why you were chosen in the first place. Although this can be a complex and emotional issue, decision-making can be simplified if you recognize and accept that you must always be a leader first and a friend second. This means accepting that some of your friends may no longer be your friends or that certain friendships will have to take a different shape. Here are some example of situations where the friendship and leadership lines become blurred and suggestions on how to handle them: Promotion decisions. Do you promote the person for whom you have the most affinity, history or liking over the person most qualified and prepared for the role? Answer: Always promote based on performance, with one caveat. The higher performer should still have strong interpersonal skills, so others will follow him or her. Performance reviews. Do you dilute tough performance feedback messages for those closest to you, to avoid hurting their feelings and relational awkwardness? Answer: Delivering honest messages is even more critical for former peers. They need to know you will always be honest with them, even when it's hard. Plus, if you delay such discussions early on, they will be even harder to have later. Social events. Do you avoid all happy hours, lunches and social events in an attempt to show distance, OR do you keep doing all those things to show your former peers that you are still "one of them"? Answer: Both. You need to pull back on some of this, but it's just as important to keep doing some activities to demonstrate that you still want personal relationships with the team. Perhaps go to lunch once a week, but not three. Firing decisions. Do you keep a friend who should be fired on your team a bit longer to protect the individual and for fear of hurting the relationship long term? Answer: If you have to fire a friend, most likely the friendship will end. Even if the friend logically understands the decision (not likely), emotionally he or she will struggle to get past it. You have to accept this before delivering the news. The bottom line is that if you let lesser performers stay on the team, you look bad to everyone else. Changing things. Do you avoid changing things you believe should be changed for fear that former peers won't like the changes? Answer: It's often good advice not to change too much early on. However, if you have been brought in to do a job, then you need to do it. This might mean changing things that your peers wouldn't want changed. Decide what needs to be changed, and make sure you communicate early and often why you are making the changes. Get their buy-in. How you respond to these situations is very important since they affect your reputation, especially with those more senior. If you show the inability to make tough people decisions, then senior leaders may question your judgment and "grit." Yet, friendship and leadership do not have to be mutually exclusive. Great leaders are often able to maintain strong friendships with those they lead. This balance works just fine when things are going well. It's when things get tough that the issue becomes gray. Suzanne Peterson is an associate professor in the Management Department at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on the behaviors that characterize extraordinary leaders. She holds both a Ph.D. and an MBA from the University of Nebraska. First published in The Arizona Republic, August 2, 2014.

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