Can you be friends with your team members and direct reports?

Thanks Colin for raising this question today; one that I am often asked on workshops and courses. As with many other perplexing questions, exploring what lies behind the question itself can be of greater help than finding a resolution. It can be especially revealing to ask oneself the following:

When I am at work, which takes greater priority for me: a) for me to be ‘liked’ by my team, or b) for me to ‘like’ them?

Most people answer that being liked is their greater concern. This is of course totally understandable as most of us want to be liked and may have a strong psychological desire for the approval of others. The problem in operating from this place however is that in practice we can’t make anyone like us, however ‘likeably’ we behave. And of course the more we act out of a wish to be liked, the more probable it will be to have the opposite effect, even to the point of pushing people away.

On the other hand ‘liking others’ is fully within our control. Many people are surprised by this notion, but if you think about it for a moment you can see the logic here. However unlikable we may initially find another person, it is possible ultimately to choose to seek out their qualities and to demonstrate an interest in them. Of course it takes effort and can be counter-instinctual, but the rewards can be hugely positive. Who is not going to respond well to the person who likes them and shows an interest in them!

So if we consider what it means to ‘like’ somebody, we’re not talking about being soft, yielding, or tolerating of underperformance. Rather we’re talking about showing a respect demonstrated by our careful listening, interest in their opinions, remembering details of previous conversations, and recognising their freedom to choose rather than be coerced.

“But” you may ask, “what about those occasions when I need to be tough with them, give difficult feedback or bad news?” Of course this is likely to be hard if you are primarily concerned about your friendship with the other person. If however, you choose to ‘like’ in the way described above, regardless of their view of you, you are in a much stronger place to deliver the tough messages.

So, can you be friends with your team members? Sometimes this will be possible, desirable and enjoyable. Sometimes not.

And can you decide to ‘like’ them? Always!

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