Imagine that out of compassion, you hire an unemployed friend into a position directly under your management supervision.  In short order, you discover that your friend is having difficulty getting along with your other subordinates, that there are some serious performance problems, and that your friend is having difficulty getting to work on time.  You decide to confront the problem head on and your friend responds with an “how can you do this to me old comrade” response.  You are quickly reminded of the old saying “no good deed goes unpunished”.

Most managers receive warnings, at some point in time, to “be careful” in establishing, or maintaining, close personal relationships with individuals over whom they have some form of supervisory responsibility. Many organizations have strict formal policies regarding the need to avoid intimate relationships with subordinates, often indicating that violations are grounds for termination.

But in the real world of human emotions, policies are one thing and temptations, rationalizations, and matters of the heart are quite another.  It is so easy for most of us to convince ourselves that we can handle something, that we hardly realize that we have crossed some line until the consequences hit us full on.

Moreover, potential relationship challenges are often handed to a manager, rather than being a consequence of their own decisions.  For example, being assigned to manage a unit to which you previously belonged and within which you have several reasonably close friends.  Or, perhaps being assigned to manage a unit whose previous manager was removed for poor performance, yet he or she has decided to remain on in some other subordinate capacity.

I am aware of no simple set of behavioral guidelines that provide the keys to establishing the precise sort of relationship a managers needs to have with each of their subordinates.  Nor, given the infinite variety of human beings and situations we are talking about, do I believe such a set of behavioral guidelines is achievable.

Nevertheless, I believe the “be careful” admonition can significantly help a manager with these relationship situations if he or she phrases the warning as:  be careful OF WHAT?”

First, be careful not to mortgage your ability to exercise the evaluation, assigning, promotion, and disciplining requirements that come with a manager’s job.  When a subordinate has something they can hold over a manager’s head sufficient to dissuade that manager from doing some critical element of his or her job, it’s a good bet something inappropriate has occurred.   The best managers diligently avoid providing subordinates with this sort of professional blackmail material.

Second, be careful not to ignore a gut, common sense feeling that something is inappropriate.  Yes, this is a judgment call and a subtile one at best.  But if it simply doesn’t feel like a good idea, it probably isn’t.  If it simply doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.  Trust your instincts and error on the side of caution.  Extra caution if self-awareness and your instincts suggests that is necessary.

Finally, be careful not to mix personal feelings and sense of obligation, with the organization’s representational responsibilities that come with your job.   Managers act on behalf of their organization not as independent individuals. The organizational  performance standards and requirements a manager is asked to ensure from all subordinates are the organizations’ standards and requirements not those of individual managers.  Thus it is perfectly consistent that you can like a subordinate very much, yet be required to point out that they are falling short of some organizationally mandated requirement.

Conversations with subordinates about performance shortfalls are always challenging and are often quite emotionally difficult for some managers.  They are even more difficult when there is an emotional bond between the individuals involved.  Nevertheless, it is ultimately the employee’s responsibility to meet an organization’s performance standards or face the consequences.

The best managers work hard to foster the success of all those entrusted to their management skills.  They are excellent coaches, mentors, and providers of the resources necessary for their subordinates to grow and achieve.  But in the end, given all possible opportunities, some employees will fail.  The best managers, having done their part, do not assume the blame.

Categories: Exercising Responsibility, Managing & Leading, Managing People, Self-Management

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. I have lived this when I took a job and one of my close friends became my subordinate. Our families socialized regularly and I knew his wife was pushing him to get promoted. It was one of the hardest feedback conversations I have ever conducted when I had to tell him why he was not ready for promotion and what it would take for him to get there. I was sure that our friendship would never be the same and I would be blamed for his lack of advancement. Fortunately that did not happen because he valued my honesty and valued how well I knew him. We are still friends outside of work and our families still get together to this day. We have each moved into different roles but we both learned from that experience.

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