Should you be friends with your employees? Featured

1:41pm EDT January 2, 2013
Should you be friends with your employees?

What is the best way to motivate employees? Some successful CEOs treat employees as friends, while other equally high-achieving leaders regard employees as merely hired hands, giving them a day’s pay for a day’s work and nothing more.

What’s the best approach to produce the best results for the company, the employee and the employer? Much of the issue lies with one’s definition of a friend and the culture of the organization. Many companies boast that their employees are like family. This sounds great, but can it work?

If either party crosses the fine line that separates the difficult-to-define business and personal space, both employer and employee can become disenchanted or worse. One way to think of it is that friendship is more unconditional. We accept a friend for what he or she is or isn’t. On the flip side, the reality is that most bosses embrace or reject employees for what they do on a consistent basis.

The military has its own way of handling fraternization between officers and the enlisted by making it a possible court martial offense. This stance is predicated on the belief that socializing between these two levels is “prejudicial to good order, discipline and partiality.” It is well recognized that business relationships without boundaries can produce too much drama.

Perhaps what we need is a new definition for a nonemotional, congenial, enjoyable and productive day-to-day relationship between leader and follower. This moniker could be employee-friend, or “e-friend” for short. “E-friend” isn’t an app but would describe an employer/employee relationship where there is mutual respect and a genuine appreciation of one another, underscored by an understanding, albeit perhaps unspoken, that when the time for talking is done, the boss has the final word on matters that occur between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Using these ground rules, both sides can have it both ways by using good judgment and treating each other as they would want to be treated if their roles were reversed.

The employee should expect from the boss that, when the chips are down, either on a business basis or when the employee has a personal problem, he or she knows that the boss will be there for him or her, providing understanding and advice and, when requested, helping the employee maneuver through rough patches. From the employer’s perspective, the employee would be someone who, through thick and thin, is there for the company and can temporarily put personal needs aside when there is a business issue that can’t be postponed.

The e-friend boss should know as much about the employee as the employee wants the boss to know, which can include sensitive professional problems or even family or medical issues. In a good relationship, the boss could certainly know, as one example, what the subordinate’s kids are up to in their lives and be the first to say to the employee that it’s more important for him or her to go to an offspring’s ballgame or play, rather than putting in extra time on the business project du jour.

Instinctively, employees know if a boss truly cares or is just going through the motions to be politically correct. They know if the head honcho is sincerely concerned about them as a person, not just another set of hands.

Not everything and everyone in the workplace are created equal. There will always be a pecking order; however, there is nothing wrong with truly enjoying the people with whom you work every day and sharing meaningful experiences, all of which lead to a more fulfilling role for both the employer and the employee. The best criterion to avoiding problems is using generous doses of plain common sense. There is a much-quoted line from the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” starring Michael Douglas as the ruthless tycoon Gordon Gekko, who proclaimed, “If you want a friend, get a dog.” This provoked both laughs and sighs, but in the real world, this attitude makes for a very lonely Ebenezer Scrooge-type life for the boss and a shallow existence for employees who must spend more than half, at the very least, of their Monday through Friday waking hours working.

At times, people can be difficult, both to work for and with. However, it’s the people who make the company and relationships that combine respect and a form of e-friendship that can make the real difference.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

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