We’re Not Buddies:  Thoughts on Managers Too Preoccupied with Being Liked

I always cringe when I hear a young parent say something like, “Hey Buddy, don’t forget your toy shovel.”  I feel the same way when I hear managers call subordinates “buddy” or when I see managers who are, in general, too preoccupied with being liked.

One day I wish the toddler would reply:

You are not, in fact, my buddy, but my father.  I will have many buddies over the course of my life and you will not be one of them.  I have but one father and you are it.  If you’ve not checked lately, the roles of ‘father’ and ‘buddy’ are quite different and as my father you have a number of responsibilities that I’m counting on you to fulfill, so let’s please stop muddying up the waters with this ‘buddy’ business before it does irreparable harm to our budding parent/child relationship.

I’d love to see a buddy-dad reply to that one.

Buddy-managers make the same basic mistake as buddy-parents.  They don’t understand their role.  While it might sound nice to be buddies with all your team members, it’s just not possible.

  • Either you are going to be buddies, just one of the guys/gals, and treated as such when it comes to work matters.
  • Or you are going to be an authority figure, someone up the hierarchy and with some power distance as a result.

Hierarchies exist for a reason and love them, curse them, or both – virtually every company today is organized on some variation of a hierarchy.  Buddy-managers abdicate their responsibility to be leader in charge in favor of trying to be everybody’s friend and risk losing their leadership positions as a result.

Just as in sports, your coach is your coach and not your buddy.  Your coach may like you.  Your coach may get to know you really well.  After you’ve left the team you may one day end up buddies with your coach.  But a good coach won’t try to be your buddy and your coach at the same time.  Why?

  • It’s favoritist and ergo divisive – “Joe gets to play infield not because he’s better than I am, but because he’s the coach’s buddy.” Divisiveness can kill the team, so the coach can’t tolerate it – let alone foster it.  Managers should never have favorites or protégés for this reason.  Who’s my favorite salesperson?  The one who sold the most last quarter.  I love that guy or gal.
  • It impedes feedback. You don’t give feedback to someone you see as “a player” and “a buddy” in the same way.  If you’re like most people, you temper the latter.  If a coach does have buddies on the team, this does them a disservice – they don’t get the same level of feedback that everyone else does.  Buddies don’t react the same way to feedback either.  (Think:  “who the heck are you to say …”)
  • It complicates matters of discipline. It’s harder to make your “buddies” run 20 liners than it is to make your “players” do it.  It’s also divisive as the coach will invariably be seen as softer on his buddies when it comes to discipline.
  • It eliminates the healthy bit of fear that exists in every coach/player (and every boss/subordinate) relationship. Am I going to start today?  Will I get to play mid-field or will I be stuck on defense?  Am I going to get picked to work on the exciting new project?

Now, if you are a buddy-manager (or a manager who anoints protégés or has favorites), you have probably managed to convince yourself of the truth of a line of absolute bullshit that goes something like this.

“Yes, I have a favorite, but I’m harder on him/her than everyone else.”

You might believe it.  You might want to believe it.  Believe away.  But I can assure you of one thing:  no one else does.

Don’t have protégés.  Don’t have favorites.  Don’t be buddies with your employees.  I once went so far as to suggest that managers should view employees as AWUs (asexual worker units) which was a bit over the top.  But the spirit wasn’t entirely wrong.  We’re here to do a job and my role is leader.

If you want a friend, as they say in Washington, get a dog.

Manager is simply a different role than buddy.  Don’t try to be both at once.  And don’t try to “switch hats.”  If you’re going to work for a friend (and I have) then during the entire employment period, that person is your boss, not your friend.  Once you stop working for them, you can be friends again.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be nice, shouldn’t get to know about our employees lives and families, what makes them tick, how to adapt your style to theirs, what motivates them, and their personal and professional goals.  Of course you should do these things.  But don’t confuse why you’re doing them – in order to be a good manager, not to try and make a new buddy.

The saddest part about buddy-managers is they typically fail as both managers and buddies.  I want my employees to like and respect me because I’m driving results that benefit the company, the stock price, and the team’s careers.  Not because I bought four rounds of beers and yacked it up with the team for three hours.  Buddy-managers often end up with dysfunctional teams that fail to drive results.  The lack of results can drive fights that then break up the buddy relationships.

Buddy-managers fail to see that the best way to be liked as a manager is to not try to be.  It’s to do a good job in leading the team and to be a reasonable person while so doing.   Managers who try too hard to be liked often end up not only disliked but not respected, and sometimes even fired.

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