Managers Learn Professional Distance to Stay Out of Trouble
They avoid personal workplace relationships to minimize conflicts
Experienced managers have at least one quality in common with entire nations during a world war. They learn they have allies, neutrals and enemies.
They have allies who help advance their careers or protect them from harm. They have enemies who battle with them over vision, resources or everyday personality conflicts. They have neutrals who don’t have much impact on their success either way.
As managers progress into higher levels of leadership, they learn many reasons why it is important to build a professional distance with subordinates, peers and bosses.
“The principle of keeping a ‘professional distance’ is intended to protect both parties from the wobbly, unpredictable influence of emotions in the execution of their expertise,” says Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., in “Social Intelligence”.
Staff people are more likely to have friends at work. They usually aren’t competing with each other as intensely for resources, promotions, job security or large revenue targets. They often have only base pay and not bonuses and commissions that many managers get for hitting financial targets. They are more likely to go out to lunch together or socialize in other ways that don’t involve a business purpose.
Higher Stakes for Managers
Middle and senior managers have more at stake, including higher pay, status and benefits. Senior managers in particular have fewer job prospects; getting fired makes finding a new one that much harder. Older managers in their 40s and 50s fear not getting hired at all because of their age. They probably have been burned by someone more than once over the years, so they become more cautious with their work relationships.
Although managers of course can have friends at work, safer friendships are available outside of work. For example, I went cycling on weekends for many years with a fellow senior manager. At work, we were allies and nothing more because we knew better. We kept a professional distance.
If our status at work ever decayed, our friendship would have to end as well. Friendship on the weekend was a calculated risk. Friendship at work was an even bigger risk, so we made sure we always acted like peers and not like friends. We learned how to play two different roles.
How Managers Develop Professional Distance
Managers have three types of relationships at work: subordinates, peers and bosses. All three types have different reasons for encouraging professional distance.
Manager-Subordinate: Firing a Friend
Imagine having a young middle manager with a work friend who is a subordinate. The “friend” underperforms to the point where it is necessary to take corrective action up to and including termination. Any manager with integrity and compassion knows the emotional struggle of firing or laying off someone.
That struggle is much worse with a friend, especially because the friendship is likely to end with even more anger and accusations than a normal layoff or firing. Higher emotions make legal action an extra risk because they may lead people to say or do things they will later regret.
Another risk in manager-subordinate friendships is the potential for bias or perception of bias. Other members of the staff and even other managers may suspect preferential treatment toward that friend if he or she gets a raise, promotion or prime assignment. Bluntly, if the manager and subordinate are members of the opposite sex, the risk of unfavorable perceptions is often higher.
Manager-Peer: Competing for Survival
Managers usually have greater risks than staff because of higher job expectations. The risks come in the form of job insecurity if the operating unit doesn’t meet goals, objectives or other performance standards.
Managers also compete for pay, promotions, resources and favorable evaluations for the sake of maintaining their job security and improving their chances at promotion. This competition is another form of risk, especially if the competition starts to get personal.
What if Joe Smith needed two more staff people to achieve a production quota, Greg Jones also needed two more and the company agreed to fund only two out of the four positions? Should Joe or Greg back down and risk job security so the other one, a “friend”, can get the two positions, achieve quota and protect his job?
During that competition for two more workers, they are both thinking in the back of their minds about what happens if they don’t get the extra people and fail at their jobs. How do they pay the mortgage, feed their families, keep health insurance and put kids through college without a job?
Allies Solve Competing Needs
Two managers in such a situation will leave out much more emotion if a friendship doesn’t personalize this tricky situation. Ideally, they are allies who figure out ways to deal with their competing needs. They may approach upper management together and split the difference with the two new positions. At the same time, they may make the point that neither one is likely to reach goals without more help.
If they are neutral toward each other, they might compete for the staff without trying to split the difference. They also may compete without trying to undermine each other.
If they are enemies, one or both may try to use unethical or unprofessional tactics to gain both staff positions. One of them will surely lose.
Regardless of whether they are allies or neutrals, a professional distance will lower the risk. But enemies never have professional distance. They are neither professional nor emotionally distant. Enemies are emotional by nature.
See More at Leaders and Managers: Career advice for people in charge.
Manager-Boss: Better to Mentor
A friendship between a middle manager and a senior manager at first may not appear much different than the friendship between the middle manager and subordinate described above. But the stakes are much higher because they manage more people. A failure has much more impact on the company and their job security.
Instead, a capable senior manager should treat the relationship as a mentoring opportunity to develop a talented employee into future leadership roles. Focusing on better behavior and performance makes the relationship objective rather than subjective and professional rather than personal. It maintains a proper distance between the two of them.
Subordinate managers have their own reasons for maintaining a professional distance. For example, a young or inexperienced subordinate manager may see the relationship as something different. He or she may think the relationship has become personal when it has not. Another example is two management peers who are friends; one gets promoted over the other and becomes the other’s boss.
Work friendships create challenges
Some of these situations are less likely at a major corporation with the smartest, most experienced and most successful managers. They are more likely at a smaller organization or in a smaller operating unit with younger and less experienced managers.
Regardless of the environment, managers at all levels have a variety of challenges in dealing with their subordinates, peers and bosses. Friendships potentially create even more challenges. Professional distance reduces them.