Ep 62 // #AskAkua - Should You Be Friends With Your Employees?

Ep 62

Should a boss, CEO, or company leader be friends with employees? On this #AskAkua episode, Certified Executive Leadership Coach Akua Nyame-Mensah delves into her experience and perspective regarding friendships and relationships at work.

Depending on the culture in which you work, industry and sector, and even the stage of the organization's growth, relationships, and their meanings can vary. And because no leader is the same, friendships can look different from person to person. But no matter what, when it comes to being a leader, it's imperative to maintain respect, treat employees and teams equally, and have appropriate boundaries.

Find out Akua's three-step framework for deciding how to approach workplace relationships, starting with a core leadership tool - cultivating self-awareness. She'll also discuss issues you, as a leader, should focus on to ensure productive employees who are comfortable approaching you for support.

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What's Covered in this Episode About Boundary Setting

  • Akua talks about the difference between being "friends" and being "friendly" in the workplace.
  • Because all leaders are different, leaders need to define friendship and what that means to them and their unique situation.
  • To help evaluate your relationships with employees, it can be helpful to reflect on a past relationship you had with a boss and what felt comfortable to you. Akua uses a former boss as an example.
  • Being friendly as a boss means you are approachable, polite, and (appropriately) vulnerable.
  • Leaders should not aim for friendship but should create an environment where people feel comfortable coming to them for support and advocating for themselves in the workplace.
  • Akua talks about the importance of psychological safety and whether team members enjoy working together.
  • Akua discusses her 3 step framework for evaluating friendships at work.
  • A workplace should not be viewed as "family," as this can be a manipulative term. Employees are not family - they are there to hold each other responsible in an intentional and human way.
  • A leader's boundaries should be clear and communicated often.

Quotes from this Episode of Open Door Conversations

  • "Being friends and being friendly are two different things." - Akua Nyame-Mensah
  • "Rather than asking yourself, should we be friendly? Should we be friends? This is a family, I think the question is, is that psychological safety there so that members of my team feel comfortable coming to me, and advocating for themselves or sharing that something isn't going well." - Akua Nyame-Mensah

  • "I'm being proactive, because I actually do have an interest in how my employees are doing outside of work, because that has an impact on how they show up in the office, I'm being intentional, because I'm setting aside specific space for that. - Akua Nyame-Mensah

Get to Know the Host of the Open Door Conversations Podcast

Learn more about your host, Akua Nyame-Mensah.

Akua is a certified executive and leadership coach, recognized learning and organizational development facilitator, speaker, and former startup executive. 

Since 2018, she has had the opportunity to partner with amazing organizations, from high-growth startups to multinational brands all around the world, to maximize people, performance, and profit.  Outside of her coaching and corporate speaking engagements, she is a regular mentor, coach, and judge for various entrepreneurship-focused organizations.

Stay in touch with Akua Nyame-Mensah, Leadership & Culture Advisor:

  • Read about Akua’s services if you’d like to learn more about how you can hire her to help you strengthen your organization’s culture.

  • Complete her contact form to jump on a call.

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Here’s the transcript for episode 62 about Friendship with Employees

Akua Nyame-Mensah 0:07 Welcome to the open door podcast. My name is Akua Nyame-Mensah. I also respond to Aqua and I'm a certified executive and leadership coach recognised facilitator and former sort of leader that loves supporting reluctant buyer fighting and overwhelmed leaders. I've worked with them to help them clarify where they should focus their time and energy each and every day so that they can love themselves, love their work, and ultimately love their life. If you're looking to learn leadership information and hear different perspectives, you are in the right place. My aim in this podcast is to help you see that one of the most productive and profitable things you can do is deeply understand yourself. Understand how you show up, understand how you thrive and allow yourself to align everything in your work in your life, and in your business to support that think of this podcast as your weekly opportunity to receive leadership support. And remember, there is no one right way to lead yourself or others. Thank you so much for taking the time to join me today. Let's get started. Hello, and welcome to this hashtag ask Akua episode of the open door conversations Podcast. Today I am asking the question should you as a boss, co founder slash leader be quote unquote friends with your employees or with your team? There is a difference between being friends and being friendly from my perspective. So if you are interested in hearing my thoughts on this commonly asked question, please listen to this repurpose live stream. Hello, Hello, good evening. Creo Helios respond to Aqua and Akua. I'm a certified executive leadership coach. I'm also a facilitator and speaker and I'm super excited to be jumping on to share my perspective on this topic. So it's actually a question that I got from somebody when I asked them, you know, hey, what sort of content would you like to see? Do you have any questions related to leadership that I can maybe help to provide my perspective on? And this is the question I got can bosses and employees be friends. So I'm really excited to jump into it and sort of put my not only my perspective out, but also, I think, a framework that can be very helpful to keep in mind when trying to decide what makes the most sense. So can bosses and employees be friends? Let me know. So straight off the bat, right? Should you as a boss, as a leader, as a founder, right be and I put in quotes here be friends, with your employees or with your team? And for me, I think the first thing is to keep in mind that being friends and being friendly are two different things. Right? So I think it would be a different question. If you asked, Can you work with a friend? Or can you hire a friend? Can you start a business with a friend? Right? That's a different question. That's not I was asked. I was asked Can bosses and employees be friends? And so from my perspective, I think the first thing is getting really clear on how do you sort of see a friend how you defined being a friend? And is that different from being friendly? Alright, so I know, I used to think that I had to act a certain way to be taken seriously, to be listened to a part of that also might be gendered. Right, as a woman within a space that was a little bit more male dominated, I felt like there was a certain way in which I had to show up and a part of that wasn't being friendly, or could be interpreted as not being friendly. I guess, actually, today, I work, some people might actually interpret how I show up as not being friendly. I don't see it that way. Right. Which is why it's so important to define it for yourself, and to really think about what that means being friendly, being friends. But, you know, I think the first step is really reflecting on you know, why is that even a question that you're asking, you know, what does it mean? If your friends, what is that outcome that you're gonna get from being friends? And is that different from being friendly, or any other way in which you can sort of describe your leadership style and how you're engaging with others. So from my perspective, being friendly, is probably where you want to focus as a leader, right? You know, when you're friendly with someone, you are approachable, you are polite, you're vulnerable, appropriately, right, that might take some time to learn what that looks like. Your style might be different from everyone else, right? How I show up as a leader is different from how everyone else shows up as a leader. But if you're listening to this, and this is something that you struggle with, you know how to even know the difference between being friendly and being a friend. I really think the first step right and I mentioned this before is sort of reflecting on what your definition of that. And another thing you can do is also reflect on your own experience. Maybe when you are an employee or you work for somebody else, and ask yourself, what worked well, what resonated? Where did you feel comfortable? And where could you actually advocate for yourself, because, once again, I'm not advocating that you need to be, quote, unquote friendly, because that word friendly actually doesn't resonate with me. And I'm not advocating also that you need to be a friend. But I do think that there are some key things as a leader, you need to keep in mind to make sure that you create an environment, right that you have a culture, so people feel comfortable coming up to you for the appropriate reasons that people feel comfortable advocating for themselves, that people do feel comfortable doing things, and that they can come to you. And you can support them. Once again, using that word appropriately. It's not an easy one, but it's, you know, it appropriate is going to look different. Once again, for everyone. It also might look different in different cultures, it might look different in different industries and sectors. Right. What I'm trying to do here is just sort of give you a bit of a framework and some questions that you can use to support yourself through this, if this is something that you're struggling with. And just once again, to reiterate, no two leaders are going to show up the same, no two cultures within companies are going to be the same. And so it's really important to keep that in mind as well. So when this question came up for me, and I think actually, the individual asked me this question is actually watching live. So thank you so much for it. But when this question came up, it was really interesting, because it was at a time where I actually had an opportunity to reconnect with an old boss. And when I thought to myself, was this boss friendly? Was he my friends, I was quick, to be clear, in my mind that no, like, he's definitely wasn't my friend, I could definitely see how he could be friendly. I definitely had stayed in touch with him. And I had a good enough relationship with him still to be able to meet him in a different country 12 years later, right. So that means that there were some really core characteristics that he had, and obviously, the relationship that we had built was strong enough to be able to continue that relationship 12 years later, right? Does that mean he was my friend? No. Was he friendly? I guess you could say that. But I wouldn't necessarily consider him to be my friend, right. He was someone who was my boss, someone I respected a lot. And I like to think that experience has helped to inform how I also show up as a leader, and sort of the boundaries and lines that I put up as a leader in relation to this topic. And I'll share a little bit more about that, when I you know, talk a little bit more about the important things I think that leaders need to focus on as opposed to focusing on am I being friendly, and can we be friends. But you know, because as human beings, a lot of our behaviour is based on the things that we've seen previously, I think this is a really great exercise. And so I went through this exercise, and this is something I also like to do with my clients as well. So thinking about this old boss, you know, he worked incredibly hard, he was incredibly generous, but I don't think it ever crossed the line. He's a tonne of fun. This was a boss who would literally have parties. And actually, I think he would even drink with us as well. But you would not take advantage of him. Right? I would never take advantage of him. There were clear expectations, he was quick to, you know, point out if someone had done something wrong or remove somebody if they weren't doing the right thing. And he was not afraid to make hard decisions. So though he was, I guess you could say friendly, he might have acted kind of in a friendly way in certain situations and certain contexts. Like I said, I have mad respect for him, I still have respect for him. And things got done, right. So those are the important elements, when you are thinking about building that culture. And you are thinking about building that team, right? Things got done, if you came late, he was not happy, even if you were both out previous night until three o'clock in the morning. Right? So really just recognising that, you know, even if you do connect with a boss, or you are a boss that connects with your employees outside, that doesn't mean that you should lacks on whatever those expectations are once you get into the workplace. All right, so what can this actually look like? What should we be focused on? Right? If I'm saying that the focus maybe shouldn't be whether or not we're friends, or whether or not we're friendly? What should we really be focusing on as leaders as founders, as CEOs? And I think, you know, what we should be focusing on is creating that psychological safety, right? So we don't want to take advantage of people. We don't want to pretend that people are friends in order to get them to do things for us, if we're paying them, but it is really important to think about psychological safety. And another thing that comes up when I think about this question, can boss as an employee, be friends, is of those leaders that tend to talk about their team or their employees as if they're a family. And I also think that that can be quite problematic and maybe even manipulative, because there are certain things that a friend would do for you or a family member that would do for you potentially that, you know, when employee maybe shouldn't? Or maybe an employee should know about. So once again, just really recognising that rather than asking yourself, should we be friendly? Should we be friends? This is a family, I think the question is, is that psychological safety there so that members of my team feel comfortable coming to me, and advocating for themselves or sharing that something isn't going. Right. Right. I think other things that come up when thinking about that psychological safety piece is, do my team members enjoy being around each other, and recognising as a leader that you might not be invited, and you maybe shouldn't be in all environments that your team is in? So earlier on, I talked a bit about how I had a boss who would kind of go out and party with us, right? That's not necessarily for everyone. And that also might look different, you know, depending on where you are in your career as well, right. So maybe if you're a little bit younger, you might go hang out with your direct reports, in certain situations, that might not be the case as you get older. Right. So recognising that that can also shift. But I think the key thing here is once again, is that psychological safety there, do people enjoy being around each other, because they enjoy working together. It's not going to be 100% all the time. But those key elements, I think, are things we definitely need to keep in mind. Right. Another thing to keep in mind when we think about, you know, bosses being friends or friendly and all those elements is, you know, the boundaries, right? What are those boundaries, making sure those boundaries are clear that they're communicated often, it's something I talk about all the time. But those boundary pieces, I think, are really important. And you should also have boundaries with your friends and family as well. But even more important within the workplace, once again, when we are thinking about creating that psychological safety, you know, making sure that you're communicating clearly. And often, I think that's more important than thinking about whether your friends are being friendly, modelling the behaviour that you expect of others, as I mentioned before, with that example of a boss that I was reflecting on, I think, who did a really great job of being a boss, but also being fun and creating that psychological safety. They modelled the behaviour they expected of others, he was incredibly hard working, right? He didn't accept if things weren't done appropriately, even though he could go out and have fun with us when the context was right. All right. Another thing that you maybe want to ask yourself, once again, instead of can I be a friend or friendly with my employee is Am I being appropriately vulnerable? Right? Or am I being appropriately empathetic? And so that's, that's a key thing there as well, right? Am I doing this because this person is my friend, even though it's going to have a negative impact on my bottom line in my business? Or am I doing this? Because this makes the most sense for my business? Right? So those are some of the things that you could definitely ask yourself, I'm not saying that you shouldn't be a human being right. You don't work with robots for robots. But it's really important to keep in mind that, you know, with creating that psychological safety, and also this element of fairness, which is incredibly important to keep a highly motivated and engaged team, right, fairness, and treating everyone equally is really key for that. And that's why asking yourself, Am I being appropriately vulnerable? My behaviours towards one employees at the same as other employees? Okay. So those are just some of the things I think that are more important to consider. And keep in mind as you build a team, as you build a business, and you think about your employees, or you think about your team members. So you might listen to some of this and say to yourself, like, Hey, this is being like really calculating or potentially even manipulative, but I don't think it is, I think it's being intentional, and respecting the fact that you can't do everything by yourself, and that everyone is thinking about it from the perspective of what's in it for me, right? We're human beings, let's be honest. And I think that in order to connect appropriately with people, it is important to be somewhat vulnerable, it is important to engage. But how do you do that in a way where once again, those lines aren't being blurred, you're able to set those boundaries, and you're able also to take action if things are not being done appropriately. And so that's where, you know, the three step process that I use with leaders I use within all my contents, all my speaking, I think really comes in and will really help you think about, as opposed to being a friendly leader or a friend who's a leader, or boss or founder, you're a leader who is proactive, effective, intentional, influential, I think that's really a more effective perspective to take when thinking about can bosses and employees be friends. And so what I think is important to keep in mind is first and foremost, that element of cultivating your self awareness. Right? I think that's always the first step, whenever you're sort of trying to tackle any type of leadership challenge issue, things that are coming up. And so with that self awareness piece, like asking yourself like, okay, you know, how am I potentially coming across, you know, and also asking yourself, like, if I come across too friendly or too agreeable, you know, what does that mean for that employee when I give them direct feedback that's incredibly actionable. You know, what does that mean in terms of being consistent with all employees? Right? What does that mean, in terms of the power dynamic? A part of being self aware might also be what are the rules and regulations around creating relationships within this organisation? Right? And if it's a startup, maybe some of those aren't necessarily written yet, but what does it mean, in terms of whatever culture, you know, values that you might have? I think that self awareness is also key when thinking about what are appropriate emotions to share with team members, right. And one of the hardest things I had to learn was that I can't tell my employees, my team everything, and that there's certain things where I need to make sure I have an appropriate outlet for so that might come through as you reflect on is this an appropriate thing to share? Is this an appropriate issue or challenge to share? Right, and as I say that I'm not suggesting that you can't cry in front of your team. I actually did that one or two times, right. But I'm simply just saying that not everything necessarily needs to be shared with people who are working with you in that way. All right. Another thing that you can also start to reflect on and build your awareness around is what boundaries might be important, right? What would help make your engagement with your team members? Right, more comfortable for you? Right? What makes sense for you, as I mentioned earlier, on, no two leaders do things in the same way. Right? So that's really that first step, cultivating yourself awareness around this, the second step is really around that engagement piece, right? So you've decided, yes, like, I want to build better relationships with my employees, which once again, I think is a more constructive way of thinking about this concept of being friends. So how do I go about doing that? And I think a key part of engaging appropriately is that you don't want to come across as someone who's favouring one employee over the other, I'm sure there's going to be people that you get along a little bit better, right, naturally, I think that's normal. But you don't want to come across that way. Right. And you want to make sure that you put systems in place to make sure that you're able to engage with everyone and give everyone an opportunity to learn more about you, you know, and for them to of course, reciprocate. So reflecting on, you know, once you've taken that time to reflect on, like, how to be transparent, what is honesty look like in terms of the workplace and the level you're at within your organisation? What does vulnerability look like? Right, in terms of your organisation, right? Where does it make sense to have those conversations? Does it make sense in a one on one setting? Does it make sense in a group setting? And one of the things that I liked to do when I was working full time and had two teams between two different countries was building a system for this and intentionally creating a space just to ask how things are doing or how things are going outside of work? Right? Does that mean I'm being a friend to my employees? Maybe a little bit, am I being friendly, I guess, once again, you could say that, but from my, you know, my perspective, I'm being proactive, because I actually do have an interest in how my employees are doing outside of work, because that has an impact on how they show up in the office, I'm being intentional, because I'm setting aside specific space for that. And I'm clearly outlining that this is the space to have that conversation, right. And I'm being influential, right, because ultimately, right, my, you know, employees are human beings. And so it's important to understand that side of them. And I can also share if I feel comfortable doing that as well. So that engagement piece, I think is incredibly important. And there are ways to build systems to build processes to make sure that you can do this in an effective manner where you can get across to all your employees. If you're listening to this, and you say that your team is too big to be able to do this on maybe a monthly or quarterly basis, you're managing too many people, you need to figure out another way to to make sure that you can break up your team a bit, or at least give them the opportunity to have that conversation with somebody else. All right, this last bit around can bosses and employee be friends. And what I think is probably more important to really focus on is really that set expectations piece. And this is where I tend to spend a lot of time with my clients and tend to have lots of conversations around don't set that expectation, right that you're creating a family. It's also goes back to one of the things I always love to talk about, like your team members aren't family, you can talk about it being somewhat family, like I used to talk about it a bit when I had a team, but ultimately, right we are here to hold each other responsible. We have KPIs we need to hit. And we want to do that in an intentional and very human way. All right. So in terms of setting expectations around how you engage in what those relationships should look like, right? It's really to come down to the how so what is the culture you're looking to build? What are the values, you know, what's the mission of your organisation in your company? And how can you use that to help to, you know, help people be intentional about the connections they make, and also help you be intentional about the connections you make with your team as well. Right? Once again, within that set expectations piece, you also want to think about the boundaries, what are they and communicate them clearly and often. And then last but not least asking yourself and reflecting on what impact does engaging have on their performance? So your team's performance, your performance, your followship, your ability influence, right? And what feedback are you getting? I think that's a key piece as well. Right? So once again, I think it's a spectrum. I'm not suggesting that you are, you know, on one end, you know, maybe mother During everyone are kind of fathering everyone or everyone's best friend. I'm not suggesting that. And I'm also not suggesting on the other end, you know that you're a hard ask because I know I was a hard ass when I first started, you know, very kind of stoic don't want to hear about your life. Don't tell me about your feelings. I'm not suggesting you get on either one of those sort of extremes, but be somewhere in the middle and recognise that leadership is very situational. And there are times where, yeah, maybe you do need to have a conversation, or you need to console a team member that might be crying, right? Or you even might cry. So recognising that sometimes those things might shift and change. But that doesn't mean that, you know, you should create a culture where, you know, people are able to take advantage of each other, or there are no ways to make sure that people are held accountable for things, right. And you can say that if you're thinking about it from that perspective of friends, or being friendly, that element can unfortunately potentially happen, right, that that can sort of come up. All right. A key thing to mention about this whole idea of bosses and employees being friends is that culturally, this might look a little different as well. So you know, once again, I wanted to share a little bit more of a framework, as opposed to saying you should do this, or you should do that, because I think every situation is a little bit different. But you know, really cultivating your awareness, thinking about how you want to engage, and then setting expectations for yourself and others is really going to allow you to make sure you're able to move forward, right? And recognising that it might shift, it might evolve as your business shifts and evolves as well. Right. So I do a lot of work with early stage startups, and a lot of the volunteer work I do. And so how they talk about their culture, and how they engage with their employees is going to be very personality driven when you first are starting off, right. But when you get into more structure, with some of the corporate work I do, it's very different. And there also are a lot more guidelines around how people should engage, and typically a lot more culture, and the how is a lot more defined for everyone as well. So I just want to close with another question that might be coming up with for some of you who are maybe listening to this, and it might be around can you know, a boss and an employee be a friend outside work? Alright. And I just want to end with, you know, it depends, you know, I think that once again, you can follow that same framework that I shared. And really, really focus on that setting expectations piece and setting boundaries piece, because it might be something along the lines of You know, not speaking about work or not speaking about other colleagues if you do do something outside of work, right. So I definitely think it's possible, but you definitely need to be a lot more intentional about it. All right. So that's honestly all I wanted to share. So just thank you so much for taking the time to listen, if you have any thoughts, any ideas, if you disagree with me, please feel free to let me know I'd love to hear it. I also wanted to let you know that I do have an upcoming thought leadership masterclass. And so if you are interested in thinking about how you can leverage social media, but make sure that you're spending more time leading or coaching, or whatever you do, you should definitely check it out, I go through the three steps that I use to sort of build my social media presence. And then last but not least, if this is something that you are struggling with, and you really want to break that cycle of reacting. And finally, you know, get in control of your team and your time, feel free to reach out because these are the types of conversations right? Can bosses and employees be friends of what does that actually look like in practice? How do you start thinking about a culture that's enabling but not toxic, right and has accountability? Those are the types of conversations that I have with my clients one on one so if you're interested in learning more, you can reach out in the DMS. Alright, so as always, thank you so much for taking the time to listen, have an amazing weekend and stay safe and stay safe. Bye. Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to today's episode. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please share it with your friends. We can continue this conversation on social media the links to my socials so that is LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter. You can find them in the show notes. If you tagged me in a story and include the hashtag hashtag ask Akua I will share a special little gift with you. Thank you so much once again for your time and I cannot wait to share my next episode with you stay safe and sane.


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