What makes a good boss? For some respected business gurus it’s a somewhat dehumanized individual focused on results—typically measured over a short period of time through scorecards or dashboards—, hypercompetitive, and who never lets their feelings or instincts interfere with getting the job done. Furthermore, bosses can never have a friendship with their subordinates for fear of compromising their need to drive them harder, to correct them, or eventually to sack them.
This rather rigid interpretation is pretty much that of Harvard Business School’s Linda Hill and Kent Lineback, a veteran manager, as spelled out in their bookBeing the Boss: The Three imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader (1): bosses cannot be friends with their subordinates. And while building friendships with employees, they argue, is a natural tendency among humans to look for the best in people, to avoid conflict, or to sympathize with the personal or family situation of others, they also warn that bosses can use friendships to secure support and better performance.
Instead, they say, professional relationships should be governed by other factors. To begin with, friendship should never be a means to end. Furthermore, true friendships can only take place between equals. Bosses are there to exercise pressure when needed so as to produce better results; friendship is about reciprocity. And of course, as Hill and Lineback point out, it is simply not possible to be friends with the entire workforce.
Which is all well and good, but as we know from experience there is always a utilitarian aspect to all friendships: we tend to have certain expectations from our friends, whether we seek their support, advice, or simply a good time when we see each other.
At the same time, employees will have certain expectations from their bosses, and if these are not met, may prompt them to leave the company. I think we all know by now that one of the main reasons people move on is because they can’t get along with their boss.
“Philia (the Greek word for friendship), is the motive for society” (2) wrote Aristotle. “Society depends on friendship. After all, people would not even take a journey with their enemies” (3). I believe the same principle applies to the world of work, which is typically a microcosm of society. Aristotle believes that there are three different kinds of friendship; that of utility, friendship of pleasure, and virtuous friendship “for what the other is”, because both “resemble each other in excellence.” The first two types of friendship, says Aristotle, tend to be temporary, while the third includes elements of the first two, and is the true friendship. This type of healthy friendship is found among virtuous people and “lasts as long as they are good, and excellence is something lasting.” (4) But could such a friendship develop in a business context, for example between boss and employee? I think Aristotle would agree it can, provided that the relationship is built on “excellence”. Either way, says the philosopher, such friendships are uncommon.
But when you think about it, why can’t a boss and a subordinate be friends? As British contemporary thinker A.C. Grayling points out, history and literature are filled with examples of friendship between superiors and inferiors: Aeneas and Achates, Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pylades, Cyrus and Araspes, or Scipio and Laelius—and that’s just in the Ancient World. What characterizes these relationships is that the boss needs somebody they can trust, somebody they can be at ease with, ask for disinterested advice, share their concerns, or simply seek solace. As for the subordinate, says Grayling, he or she “has to be able to comprehend the qualities of the superior, they must be able to discuss, to share attitudes and feelings about things, there must be confidence and trust between them; it will seem as if perfect equality subsists between them in their interaction” (5). This is how something can be created able to transcend the mismatch of power, something much more along Aristotelian lines.
You might be forgiven for thinking that this kind of friendship could only be found in some type of corporate Arcadia, but I would argue it provides a better template for how we should behave within an organization, even if it largely remains an ideal and is never fully realized. In short, it certainly offers greater hope than the dehumanized model mentioned above.
Seen in Aristotelian terms, a friendship between boss and subordinate should be neither based solely on achieving shared objectives or in having a good time together. Instead, it should also include a shared vision of excellence, of values, and in identifying with the company’s mission and values.
And this is where senior management’s role is so important: leaders must create an organizational culture that promotes the company’s principles, as manifested by the decisions it takes and the relationship between members. Without them, there is no question of friendship in the workplace.
Obviously, we’re not talking here about a friendship that consists of going out after work, or on having the same tastes and hobbies, or discussing personal matters. Instead, it should arise naturally. There are extrovert bosses who enjoy socializing with their employees, inside and outside the workplace. There are also more introverted people, who look for a meeting of the minds.
I remember the CEO of a large multinational telling me that he preferred not to play golf or engage in social activities with the members of his board. On the one hand it allowed him to find a better balance between his professional and private lives, as well as disconnecting from work. At the same time, he was fully dedicated to his job and directors, with whom he met frequently outside the boardroom. His is an example of how it is possible to have a friendly relationship at work without the need for shared extracurricular interests.
It is also important to remember that our understanding of friendship depends in large part on what kind of society we live in. The way culture influences what kind of relationship we have at work with our bosses or subordinates as been termed the power distance relationship by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede. Power distance measures the sense of hierarchy and the expectations that people in lower positions in organizations may feel about how they are treated by their superiors. (6) Interestingly enough, a lot of studies show that it is not just Asia where the power distance can be considerable: it is typically the case in Latin America, for example. Although globalization is shortening power distances, deep cultural roots mean that change takes time. As might be expected, in countries with significant power distances, friendship between bosses and subordinates is uncommon and discouraged on the whole. That said, new organizational models are challenging traditional, vertical power structures in companies. (7)
The family-run business also raises some interesting questions about workplace relationships. Relationships between family members are obviously not based primarily on friendship, but there is usually an element of affection involved, and this can complicate dealing with professional issues: many family enterprises fail during the handover from the founders to the next generation precisely because of a lack of professionalization or management ability. But I would say that those that pass the test, and that perhaps go on to become large corporations—the hospitality sector offers many example of successful family businesses—can provide a model for other organizations.
You may not work with people interested in, or able to, create a relationship based on Aristotelian principles of excellence, but it is still possible to move toward this goal:
-In the first place, it’s always a good idea to have friends at work and outside of the workplace. Within work this should be within your department and in others, as well as with people of the same position, and with those above and below you. Only seeking out friendship with your superiors or of the same rank is a rather old fashioned way of going about things, and in the long run probably isn’t going to help your career much anyway.
– The guiding principle in establishing a relationship between bosses and employees is to be natural, to be yourself; not that this means being an open book. It’s certainly a good idea to cultivate good relations, something that means treating others as they would like—by showing respect rather than fawning. The acid test here, as with all friendships is to ask yourself whether you are loyal to your boss or your subordinate.
– If you do establish a friendship with your boss, don’t try to be their oracle, and much less so if your workmates are encouraging you to be so.
– If you have established some degree of intimacy with your boss or subordinate and you discuss non-work-related topics, don’t assume that this will translate into closeness regarding professional questions. The best thing is to draw a line between the two spheres.
– Then there is the question of friendships established prior to establishing a professional relationship. These can often be damaged by differences about how things should be done at work, and such conflicts can be difficult to resolve. As said above, as a rule it’s best to keep the personal and professional separate, although there will probably be some spill over. Getting past such obstacles requires understanding, time, and consideration, but in the long term, it needs to be seen as an investment.
– If you are friends with your boss, you certainly mustn’t expect any special treatment at work: bosses cannot be seen to favor subordinates who are also their friends, particularly in public. In fact, they will expect greater discretion from you, couple with a truly professional approach. Expressing jealousy or anger when our boss-friends require the conversation to be purely professional will simply be interpreted as a sign of immaturity.
Overall, I believe it’s a good thing to cultivate friendship between bosses and subordinates: it is a fundamental sign of our humanity. If you work in an organization where the favorite topic of conversation is criticizing the boss, then it is clearly a place where these kinds of friendly relations are absent. But rather than getting home in the evening and playing Whack the Boss or rewatching the movie Horrible Bosses, perhaps your time would be better spent reading Aristotle. Or you could just change job.
(1)Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback, Being The Boss. The Three Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader (Boston, Mass: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011); pp. 49-57.
(2)Aristotle, Politics, 1280b38-9
(4)Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1156b5-15
(5) A.C. Grayling, Friendship (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013); p.109.
(6) Hofstede, Geert. Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context. ScholarWorks@GVSU. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture. Retrieved 6 September 2015
(7) Tim Kastelle, Hierarchy Is Overrated, Harvard Business Review, November 20, 2013