Dear Dave: I have a good group of employees. There were some solid contributors on the team when I became manager and I was careful in hiring strong employees that could fit the team.

I would call our working environment somewhat relaxed, and I don’t have a need to be the bad guy. I feel like I am slowly, but surely, becoming a “friend” to some of my employees and not being just their manager. Is this OK? Are there dangers in my close relationship with my staff? -- D

Dear D: Great question. I am sure there are many managers thinking the same thing -- and there are many managers who would say that you are standing on a slippery slope, because being friends with your employees makes it difficult to lead and discipline members of your staff and be commanding and demanding when you must. Simply, your staff could come to see you as a co-worker and not as a boss who needs to give orders and tighten up when you should.

Working as a manager can be a lonely job. You often have to deliver tough news about changes. You can’t always tell your staff everything, because your upper management expects that you must keep some plans confidential until the timing is right. Plus, you need to provide each and every one of your staff accurate, feedback driven, performance reviews. To do this requires your evaluating what your employees are actually doing, both right and wrong. Thus, you must be an objective realist who is focused on productivity, not allowing you to (always) be joking around with your staff.

Some new managers will come out swinging and scare the heck out of their employees. They may have been trained by other managers who believe you need to drive immense fear into your employees, or they will just take advantage of you and start to slack.

I personally think fear is a lousy motivator. And then, you have other managers who are big “cream puffs” and act like everything is wonderful, and we can have fun and party. I think you know how the ongoing staff performance will be with this type of management. Maybe the answer is to be right in the middle of these two management styles – form relationships, but also define realities.

Management is tough stuff and there’s no way to escape the necessary burdens of authority and expectations of compliance. Employees are human (duh!) and they can become offended or hurt when you need to change your management hats and your expectations become more demanding. Accordingly, you must balance the relationships you have with your employees with the production and output demands given you by your company.

This balancing act can be done if you explain things to your employees upfront. You must first tell them that it is a major goal for you to have a creative, innovative team that feels comfortable in expressing their views and providing their ideas to you. I would then tell them they do not have to “walk on egg shells” and be constantly afraid that you are going to pounce on them and give them a hard time.

However, I would also state that, should situations and actions require strong and direct actions on your part, you are prepared for those possibilities and they should be prepared, too.

Tough love

I would set expectations right from the start and clearly state that you need feedback about progress and errors, information about resource needs, and news about obstacles that will impede productivity. Simply, make your staff more accountable for actions and activities, but make sure that they know you are there for them, so problems and concerns can be worked out. This means you should keep your office door open to them as much as you can.

I believe every employee wants to know how the team and the company is doing. Although, you may not be able to share every detail, you can bring them up to speed about company progress and how the team is contributing toward the progress. This candid discussion builds rapport and trust, because employees believe you are being honest with them about things they want to know. Employees want reliable facts and they want a company that is stable and secure. Being frank and open with your team about current realities – without making abusive threats – builds a powerful bond.

I know there are some reading my remarks and advice and are thinking, “Dave is crazy,” because you cannot tell your employees everything about how things are really going – the harsh truth will scare them and force them to find work elsewhere. My philosophy is, it is better that employees know the truth about progress, setbacks, or financial problems, or they will invent frightening tales on their own – which are often worse than the way things really are. When you are a straight-shooter with your team, they will not only come to respect you more, but they may also try to work smarter and harder and do their best to help the team and company out of a jam.

Handling manager-employee relationships can be tricky, especially when you must tell your team the truth about unpleasant company news, or revised goals that require them to work harder. However, you can and must cultivate relationships that are based on trust and transparency. The best managers are leaders, too (what a revelation!) and they lead their teams in ways that are both professional and personal. I believe you may not always be able to be friends with your employees, but you can be friendly!

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