Yes, You Can Be Friends

Don’t Be A Soulless Weasel.

Someone I follow on LinkedIn, a “career expert” with a lot of followers threw this out. I never found myself disagreeing with her before. But this time she lost me. She was adamant: “Managers cannot be friends with subordinates.” There are other prohibitions that so-called wise people like to throw out like “don’t date anyone you work with” or “keep your personal life separate from your work life.” I actually read a post from another so called expert cautioning that you shouldn’t socialize at work. Socialize with your friends and family, and they are not at work.

Well excuse me. All these years of working and being on teams and observing human nature was wasted until I came upon these fonts of human relations wisdom. Not to put to delicate a point on it, but it sounds like they have sticks up their asses.

But I like to be open minded about things so maybe these are good guidelines. That is, for those of us who cannot behave like adults. Otherwise, it’s lowest common denominator bullshit and it ignores the human instinct, one of our finest instincts: to bond. It replaces it with corporate worst case scenario worry wart horse shit. This was one of the topics that a group of senior leaders kicked around recently. These are not social media “influencers” or corporate policy setters. These are top-notch, respected and admired leaders that between them have led thousands of team members. They assured the audience you can be friends with your peers, your superiors and YES, you can be friends with your subordinates. It takes a little adulting, and it takes a little extra thought process, particularly for managers, to make sure you are not showing favoritism. But that is what managers and leaders do. We deal with complexity. Nowhere in the job description does it say leaders cannot be human.

You spend a significant amount of time working, whether it is remote or on site. Do you really want to be in an environment where you keep people at arms length? I sure as hell don’t. In some cases it’s damn near impossible not to be friends. Try picking up a work team and moving them half way across the country where no one has family or outside of work friends. You are going to be friends because you have no one else. Try having to rush an employee to the hospital and stay with them because there is no family around. You are gong to be friends. Try traveling the world with people on your team and all the adventures and craziness that entails. You are going to be friends. Or making sure an isolated employee halfway across the world gets their chance to lead a global project. You will always be friends.

I just went skiing for a week with a former employee, we enjoyed skiing together but also epic conversations in the evenings and just catching up on personal lives and careers. I am not alone in this type of experience, but the killjoys of the world would have us give that up.

Many members of my family worked at Drakes Bakeries when they were located in Brooklyn, NY. It was like an extended family. (You can’t say family either when you talk about co-workers I’ve recently discovered.) It was hard to find friends and relatives that were not somehow intertwined via Drakes. Whenever we went to visit friends of my mothers or my aunts, there were always Drakes connections. You found them at church, at the bowling alleys and you found them married to each other. Long after 1st marriages ended, usually by death but sometimes by divorce, there was a good chance that next marriage would be an ex-coworker from Drakes. The men fought the war and when they came home, they found their sisters working at Drakes and they got on there too. The Greatest Generation. Try telling them you can’t be friends at work.

I can think of at least 20 coworkers, that over the years have married each other. I have supervised some of them. I can think of many many more coworkers that have dated each other. I can think of many managers being friends with employees. You know what I can’t think of? Any single instance of someone I know that suffered career damage. And even if you did…would you sacrifice your soul mate or a lifelong friendship for something as fleeting as a job or the next rung on the ladder? You would? See the subtitle to this essay.

© Glenn R Keller 2023, All Rights Reserved

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