We all want to be the boss. At least some of us want to be the big boss at some, hopefully not-too-distant, future. It is good to be the boss. However, it takes quite a bit to get there. It takes credentials, maturity, technical expertise, people skills, communication and articulation, not to mention charisma and connections.
Even with all the superior qualities, being a boss is tough. Being a good boss is even tougher; it is a tricky balancing act. One tricky question is, how friendly can you get with your team?
At first glance, this question may seem silly. Subordinates are human beings too, worthy of as much friendliness as any. Why be stuck up and act all bossy to them? The reason is that friendship erodes the formal respect that is a pre-requisite for efficient people management. For instance, how can you get upset with your friends who show up thirty minutes late for a meeting? After all, you wouldn’t get all worked up if they showed up a bit late for a dinner party.
If you are friends with your staff, and too good a boss to them, you are not a good boss from the perspective of the upper management. If you aspire to be a high powered and efficient boss as viewed from the top, you are necessarily unfriendly with your subordinates. This is the boss’s dilemma.
From the employee’s perspective, if your boss gets too friendly, it is usually bad news. The boss will have your hand phone number! And an excuse to call you whenever he/she feels like it.
Another unfortunate consequence of accidental cordiality is unrealistic expectations on your part. You don’t necessarily expect a fat bonus despite a shoddy performance just because the boss is a friend. But you would be a better human being than most if you could be completely innocent of such a wishful notion. And this tinge of hope has to lead to sour disappointment because, if he your boss is friendly with you, he/she is likely to be friendly with all staff.
By and large, bosses around here seem to work best when there is a modicum of distance between them and their subordinates. One way they maintain the distance is by exploiting any cultural difference that may exist among us.
If you are a Singaporean boss, for instance, and your staff are all expatriate Indians or Chinese, it may be a good thing from the distance angle — cultural and linguistic differences can act as a natural barrier toward unwarranted familiarity that may breed contempt.
This immunity against familiarity, whether natural or cultivated, is probably behind the success of our past colonial masters. Its vestiges can still be seen in management here.
The attitude modulation when it comes to the right amount of friendship is not a prerogative of the bosses alone. The staff have a say in it too. As a minor boss, I get genuinely interested in the well-being of my direct reports, especially because I work closely with them. I have had staff who liked that attitude and those who became uncomfortable with it.
The ability to judge the right professional distance can be a great asset in your and your team’s productivity. However, it cannot be governed by a set of thumb rules. Most of the time, it has to be played by ear and modulated in response to the changing attitudes and situations. That’s why being a good boss is an art, not an exact science.