I could tell Linda* was upset when I began our coaching session. She had been having challenges with an employee who she had worked with successfully for a long time, but these were not run-of-the-mill problems for Linda. As a senior HR Executive, Linda had years of experience handling any number of uncomfortable employee issues, but this was the most agitated I had seen her.
As we began talking, it became clear to me that Linda was not struggling with feelings of irritation or exasperation, instead Linda felt blindsided and betrayed by this employee’s actions. Once she used those words to describe her frustration, I understood that the issue had less to do with specific behaviors from the employee (although there were distinct issues) but instead the issues reflected a case of blurred boundaries.
Linda continued explaining, “I didn’t see it.” she said. “I didn’t see any of it. All of these red flags and all I could see was a friend adjusting back to work after medical leave.”
It actually took someone else, another one of her employees, who had the courage to come speak to Linda to explain that this woman was undermining her by offering contradictory information about where the team should be headed. The woman had a negative attitude and it was contagious, creating a toxic atmosphere that brewed right under Linda’s nose.
Usually, we advocate building relationships with team members, because strong relationships at work, including those relationships between bosses and employees, are necessary for building a high performance team. Furthermore, warm relationships make work more rewarding for all parties involved. So how do you know when you know them too well? How can you determine that the line has become so blurred that you are at risk of being blindsided?
Linda had been dismissive of negative reports about this colleague and justified why it was okay for the employee to leave work early, or take extended lunch breaks. After all, she had just returned from medical leave and feeling a bit exhausted was par for the course. So Linda hesitated to act. Instead of automatically correcting the situation, she gave her employee the benefit of the doubt.
Without intervention or correction, the behaviors this one individual engaged in became worse over time. She showed up late, left early, took longer lunch breaks, and expected the rest of the team to pick up her slack. The fact that Linda hadn’t corrected the situation gave an impression of favoritism to the rest of the team.
Chances are, if you supervise others, this situation has at least a ring of familiarity. So how do you know when your efforts to build relationships with your team members have become too close? How do you know when the boundary between boss and direct report has blurred?
Despite the fact that setting the course is your role, you find yourself holding back. You may create a justification, telling yourself that you are empowering your team, but the hesitation is what sets off the red flag.
Rather than being the leader of the team, you find yourself more and more often shunted into the role of consultant. As the manager of the team, you have ultimate responsibility for your results. While you want to encourage healthy conflict, having to frequently defend your decisions to one or more of your employees indicates that your ability to effectively lead has been compromised.
Whenever your time becomes less efficient and you cannot immediately put your finger on why, take a look at what people issues might be simmering under the surface. In some cases you might be dealing with a work slow-down because one team member has been slacking off. You might be dealing with disengaged employees who feel that you are engaging in favoritism.
One of the main tasks of leadership is to listen to your team, and even, to a degree, read between the lines to discover what may be causing challenges for your team and to help them work through it. When you hear everything your team is saying, but refuse to acknowledge there is a people problem, your team stops telling you about it. That means you miss critical information that directly impacts your ability to deliver results.
You wouldn’t provide excuses for everyone, but if you find yourself making excuses for one person take a step back and think about why. For Linda, she understood that returning from medical leave was hard, and she made space for her employee, giving her the benefit of the doubt several times over. In most circumstances, helping other team members view the situation empathetically is a good thing. But it becomes a problem when you continue doing it because you have become close, and you understand your employee also as a friend. This cuts to the heart of why these friendships can be problematic for both parties. Friends take the time to understand each other, while leaders take the time to develop people. If you find yourself performing both roles, chances are you are making excuses while collecting other people’s problems.
Employees need regular feedback, and it is one of your responsibilities as their leader to provide it. Feedback and evaluation help your employees grow, it gives them a chance to develop their careers and be directed into work they are good at. If you identify that you are not taking the time to evaluate employee performance, or worse, not being objective with evaluations, take a moment to consider your relationships with employees. If you are too close with one (or some) of them, you may be abdicating your responsibilities to your team.
If you find yourself experiencing even one of these symptoms, it’s time to examine the relationships you have with your team and have the hard conversations. It may seem difficult to course correct if you find you have some blurred lines, but it is better than being blindsided with a disengaged, frustrated team or feeling like your kindness and understanding have created a situation that undermines your authority.
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