A real friend with benefits

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Recently, Brandon Levey and the amazingly talented team at Stitch Labs compiled a list of expectations they have for managers in their company. Their definition included: someone who builds trust, is incredibly supportive, challenges people to do their best, communicates well, has difficult conversations, recognizes successes but also tells things like they are, leads by example and jumps in when the going gets tough.

I suggested to Brandon that we might capture many of these attributes with one word: friend. It occurred to me in that moment that what we really expect from great managers is exactly what we want in our best friends. We want them to “have our back,” to level with us and sometimes tell us things we don’t like to hear, to be there when we need them, to communicate well and often with them, to learn from them and yes, to like them and enjoy spending time with them.

The conversation made me think about Aristotle’s beautiful description of friendship in Nichomacean Ethics as a relationship that exists not merely for pleasure or utility, but a “perfect” kind of reciprocal association between good people who are committed to helping one another become even better. To Aristotle, “friendliness” (philia) is a moral virtue – a mean between Obsequiousness (“praising everyone with a view to pleasing them and opposing nothing”) and Surliness (“opposing everything and giving no thought whatever to causing others pain.”)

It also made me think of Q10 in the Gallup Q12 Research: “I have a best friend at work.” People who say yes to this item are 43% more likely to report they have received recognition in the past 7 days and 37% more likely to report that someone at work encourages their development. Friendship is valuable, yet is increasingly scarce in the workplace, as Adam Grant recently noted. Yet the Gallup item “is clearly one of the most controversial of the 12 traits of productive workgroups” because it suggests some sort of “exclusivity.” But when they experimented with other qualifiers like “close” or “good,” the item lost its power to differentiate between mediocre and highly productive teams. And though the Gallup research doesn’t specify that the best friend at work has to be your boss, why wouldn’t we want bosses to be friends?

But clearly we don’t. Since that conversation with Brandon, I’ve explored the idea with others and each time received the same astonished reaction. Managers shouldn’t be friends with their employees. In fact, in a recent leadership seminar, one of my participants who happened to be a high level Marine officer reminded me that in the military, “fraternization” with someone under your command results in a court-martial and if found guilty, a dishonorable discharge.

I suspect they are right. “Anti-fraternization” laws and policies that prevent leaders from having friendly or “social relations with people who are in a different class” are necessary. Managers need to be objective and treat people fairly, without favoritism. We shouldn’t imply that management has anything to do with friendship, much in the way that we shouldn’t say that leadership has anything to do with love.

But in a time when organizations are doing away with managers, perhaps we need a new model? Maybe we need a model of management based on mutual reciprocity and fairness derived from shared responsibility and interdependence? A model that emphasizes a natural affection and concern between people, rather than a power relationship? And maybe that model is called friendship.

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