Blog post,  Leadership

Why you need to make friends at work (even when you’re the boss)

Early in my career, I made some great friends at work. People who I still speak to regularly after 20 years. People with who I have shared big moments with marriage, babies, breakups, deaths.

Then when I became a manager, I thought I needed to be different. I worked hard to keep a separation between me and my direct reports. It was early in the days of social media, and I definitely wouldn’t be their ‘friend’ online. I tried not to discuss anything personal and didn’t engage in many social activities. It meant that I didn’t really know the people I worked for, and they didn’t really know me. It meant I had very low empathy for them when they had personal issues because I didn’t really understand them.

Here’s the thing most of us spend more time at work than we do at home. Think about it, if we work from 8am – 5pm that’s nine hours a day. If you have an hour at home before work, and maybe 5 hours at home before you go to bed… You get less time at home every day with your family than you do with the people you work with. (Unless you are currently working from home, and then you get to spend every moment of every day with them).

I learned over the years that I get more enjoyment out of work, more connection, and a sense of achievement when I am surrounded by people I care about. When you care about the people you work with, there is a higher level of trust and a deeper connection to your work. You know you can rely on these people because they rely on you.

You don’t have to like everyone every day. You have disagreements with your family, your husband annoys you some days, your mother says something that pushes your buttons, but you still care for them.

In my last team in the Australia Government, we had a deep respect for each other. I still joke we were like my family. We had disagreements, we laughed, we cried, people got annoyed, there were arguments, but ultimately if it came down to it, we had each other’s backs. We respected the skills and experience each person brought to the table. It took us many years to get to this point, many hard conversations and lots of opportunities to build trust. Did we do it all right? No, but it was the best team I have ever worked in because of the personal connection I felt to every person.

Where to start?

If you need to make a shift in the connection in your team:

  • Take the time to get to know people in your team. Sit down and ask them about their lives. Not a one-on-one formal meeting. Pop over to their desk when they aren’t too busy and say hi.
  • Head out for a coffee and don’t talk about priorities or deliverables. Just talk about life whatever comes up.
  • Spend time together as a team, not in the office. For example, we would regularly go out for lunch, go for a walk, do things together (during work hours) not in the office.
  • Be honest and grateful. When you disagree, tell the person, ask for advice or help and then say thank you (and mean it).
  • Work together on projects rather than alone. Collaborating on a common goal helps to build trust and your relationship.

Not everyone will agree with me. Some will think that you need to keep your personal life and professional life separate. For me, that doesn’t work. I can’t be authentically me if I leave half of me at home. If you’re the boss, this may mean that your staff don’t see you as genuine because they know you are holding back.

You don’t have to become best friends with everyone in your team. You don’t have to socialise with them outside of work hours, but you do need to care personally about them to form the bonds, the trust and the respect that you need to work together effectively.

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