I was reminded by a discussion with a friend why, as a manager, you should be cautious about the relations you develop with the people in your team.
Since the day I started to have people “reporting to me”, I have felt weird about the hierarchical nature of the relation it creates. This is probably rooted in some form of an imposter/inferiority syndrome, which evolved into the underlying philosophy of my early management style. To this day, I hate considering that switching to management is a promotion, because it’s just a different function1. I feel uncomfortable when people in a team are referred to as “under” their manager, due to the suggested superiority/inferiority it creates. The lingo of management is full of these concepts, fundamentally based on hierarchy (in which what is higher is more important), paternalism (the boss knows better than you and will tell you what), property[2 (“it is my team”, which can be quite twisted when you talk about a group of people) and dehumanization (humans are not resources).
As a result I had been over-compensating in the early years of my management career, trying to distance myself from this view, because I certainly didn’t feel like I was any better3 than people in “my” team. I was desperately trying to prove that I didn’t feel superior, wrapping feedback in all sorts of caveats (or worse keeping it for myself), trying to give as much autonomy as was imaginable, never telling people what to do, not forcing people to do things in a way they didn’t like, pulling as much shit as I can so that they wouldn’t have to do it, putting me at their level, oversharing, and worst of all, being their friends.
This behavior has positive effects, especially when the usual manager is the opposite of that. Autonomy, vulnerability, considering the human side and personal preferences, not thinking of yourself as smarter, tolerating failure, having fun, they’re all essential management traits. And being a basic, fallible human being makes a world of difference. This behavior is not an issue as long as things are going well, and people in your team are good.
But the day things go sideways, it backfires in an explosive way. Because at the end of the day, as a manager, you will have to deal with shit situations. You will have to give feedback that the receiver doesn’t want (but needs to hear). You will have to ask someone to shut up and do it anyways. You will have to not promote/give a raise to someone and tell them why. You will have to fire someone who under-performs. You will have to distribute some of the blame. And worst of all, as is happening to the friend I mentioned, you will have to lay-off people who don’t deserve it, just because the company says so.
Good luck doing that if everyone in your team is your buddy. I learned it the hard way, the first time I had to fire someone.
There is a balance to be achieved between being a frigid, all-knowing dictator, and the janitorial team servant who also doubles as party-buddy / best-friend. You can remain human, have fun and crack a joke, while not being a friend. You can prioritize other people’s opinion and remain decisive. You can be personable and bring your personality at work, yet set limits and remain professional. You can be vulnerable but still respected. You can provide hard feedback and still care at a personal level4 5.
You also need to come into terms that in the end, if the bucks stops with you, you cary more responsibility6 than people in your team, and as a result have some power they don’t have.
Beyond that, there will come a day where you have to do something to someone that you do not want to do at a personal level. To make that easier, you need to keep some distance with the folks you manage.
Albeit it comes with some power and some more stress, but still. ↩
Please don’t start flailing around thinking that I’m suggesting that managers shouldn’t own their scope ; I just mean that they don’t own the people in their team. ↩
See again, imposter syndrome, inferiority complex. ↩
Actually there’s no better reason to provide feedback than caring at a personal level. ↩
And stress… ↩