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Leadership Identity: A perspective on friendships with colleagues

It goes without saying that when we work with people for extended periods, we get to know them, and more often than not, we form long-term friendships. When one is in a leadership position, this can be challenging. This week, I worked with emerging and middle leaders in three different sectors and a reoccurring question in each workshop was asked: “What happens when I develop a friendship with my direct reports?” Known as the “Boss-friend Dynamic”, this situation is real and can have catastrophic consequences if not effectively handled.

A leadership role cannot be switched on and off. For example, leaders who venture out with colleagues to a pub after work are accountable for their comments and actions. They cannot engage in workplace gossip or share their opinion of a staff member. In fact, no one should ever engage in this space, but the reality is that it does occur.

One’s leadership identity is with them at all times. Leaders need to be role models and to practice what they preach. If their values are not aligned with those of the team and or organisation, then maybe it is time for a move.

As a leader, the team’s and organisation’s trust is critical to their success. Lencioni (2002) highlights that teams and organisations cannot engage in healthy conflict, effectively commit to the work, or be accountable without trust. The culmination of all these facets impacts the organisation’s results (physical, social, and psychological).

So, what should be considered?

  1. Set clear boundaries and expectations for a mutually respectful relationship. Leaders need to be very clear about honouring the dignity of all staff.
  2. Acknowledge the responsibility of their role.
  3. Be consistent and fair.
  4. Avoid getting caught in the agenda of their friend. Be vigilant.
  5. Avoid being in situations where the Bystander Effect is in play. If untoward, unprofessional behaviour occurs, leaders must speak up, step in, or leave the gathering.
  6. Be transparent at work so that staff do not feel that there is cronyism in practice. Adhere to all policies, practices, procedures, and protocols.

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