Q: As a first-time manager with employees who are very close in age to me (or even older), I’m worried about maintaining appropriate boundaries. Is it okay to be friends with your employees? Should I be more aloof? What’s the right balance and what can I do to achieve it?
A: Congratulations on moving into the ranks of management—some may say condolences are in order. Managing can be extremely rewarding, but it’s not without its challenges. In terms of the behaviors you want to exhibit as a manager, aloofness is not on the list, but you are right to question and examine the kind of relationships and boundaries that you should have with your employees.
People you manage can’t be the friends you go out for drinks with after work on a regular basis, even if you used to. It’s reasonable to arrange occasional social events with your direct reports—and as the boss, you can expect to pick up the check—but it would be wise to keep it to a minimum. Another part of maintaining appropriate manager/employee boundaries involves the way you present yourself at work. Make sure your attire, behavior, and communication style are all professional. Consider, too, the kind of management style you want to adopt. Do you want to be a very hands-on manager? Do you want to be a laissez-faire manager? Determine what the right role is for you, your people, and your organization’s culture. Remember, in this new role, you’ll be reviewed on your capabilities as a manager. Now would be a great time to look back at the managers you had who were the most effective—regardless of their age—whose style you could learn from and emulate.
You should also focus on what the essential role of a manager is: ensuring that your employees have the skills, tools, support, and energy to understand and succeed at their responsibilities and to remain engaged with the organization. In this role, you will be providing reviews of your team members’ contributions and areas for them to develop. It’s crucial to provide feedback to employees in the right setting. If the dynamic of your relationship or the situation is too casual and overly friendly, the important feedback you provide may not come across as serious or the person may not react professionally—they might see it as an invitation to have a friend-based discussion or disagreement as opposed to recognizing that this is a manager/subordinate situation. Imagine a friend saying “I can’t believe you wore that to work” vs. your manager saying “You are dressed inappropriately”—the latter carries an entirely different weight and should elicit a more professional reaction and remedy to the situation. You may find that employees who are closer in age and with whom you share a more friendly relationship could be more sensitive to your managerial feedback.
Work on making sure your communication and actions are framed positively, no matter what the age of the employee. The difference between thinking of your job as supporting employees’ success vs. catching them doing something wrong will help you establish appropriate relationships. Regardless of age, this is less of a friends/not friends issues and more of a management approach—you want to be supportive and focused on development vs. nitpicking and finding everything that’s wrong with your employees’ performance. You also don’t want to take the overly agreeable approach of letting people go early or come in late as a way to build allegiance to you as a leader. Professional is your key focus.
New managers especially need to pay extra attention to confidentiality. There are a number of things you can no longer discuss with your coworkers that you may have formerly discussed over lunch or a coffee break. You and your team need to recognize this shift, so that your employees don’t put you in a position of asking for more information than you’re able to give. Being close in age may mean that this line feels less solid than with an older manager and younger employees, but it is no less important to maintain confidentiality.
There is a fine line in your situation: If your relationship with your employees is overly casual and friend-based, you might experience challenges to your authority or unprofessional reactions to feedback. On the other hand, if you are too aloof, you are not presenting your authentic self, which is key to good workplace dynamics. Managers want to have good relationships with their people. This means understanding and acknowledging who they are outside of work on a regular basis; it does not mean being best friends who share everything over cocktails. A supportive and understanding management style will help build long-term successful relationships, exceptional productivity, and long-term success with employees of any age.