I never really understood the expression ‘it’s lonely at the top'. I believe you have a choice in who you are as a leader and being cold and distant was never an option for me. I never enjoyed being alone in my own office so was pleased when open plan offices became the vogue. I have always preferred company, which meant often having my direct reports with me in my office, not having formal meetings or one-to-ones but an ongoing, continuous conversation leading to friendly relationships and friendships and critically for the organisation – productivity.
Every success to date has been through having trust and friendly relationships with my team and particularly my direct reports. I am not suggesting being friendly with your staff to manipulate them into being more productive. Rather I am advocating being friendly because it is the right thing to do and it also happens to make business sense. Richard Branson said it best: “If you look after your staff, they'll look after your customers. It's that simple”.
When you spend most of the day with your fellow workers it makes sense for those relationships to be harmonious. It leads to better engagement and less employee relations disputes. It is not an easy line to walk as I always have to remind myself and my direct reports that I have to also manage their work. Nobody wants to have difficult conversations, but having responsibility and accountability for others inevitably means tensions will arise because we are all individuals with differing viewpoints and experiences.
I have had direct reports who have crossed the line with me but I have decided to give them the benefit of the doubt, not taking any action other than calling out the behaviour and putting it down to them having a bad day. Sometimes letting a matter go, especially if it is not a serious issue, helps to build trust and break down organisational barriers.
There is a dark side to having friends at work in your team. Accusations of favouritism quickly surface as team members lower in the ranks note the close working relationship of the leader with their direct reports. Similarly those in other disciplines can note enviously the positive dynamic and question what is going on.
The challenge when you are in a position of leadership is knowing who is genuinely your friend and who is being friendly because of the position you occupy. Friends are like values in that regard. Jon Stewart beautifully said: “if you don’t stick to your values when they are being tested they aren’t values: they are hobbies”. I would argue that friends only really surface when they are being tested or after one of you has vacated the role but the relationship continues.
Having left my former employer I note with interest those who have reached out just to check in to see how I am, suggested to meet up for coffee, and even offered to help source work opportunities. I am blessed to be surrounded by loving and caring people who have supported me every step of the way. A smile and a kind word costs nothing and yet so few reciprocate when lost in their daily struggles.
Wherever you are in the hierarchy be friendly and connect with your fellow worker because it helps to determine whether you will leave your workplace with memories and lasting friendships or just contributions and colleagues.
Shakil Butt is former HR director of Islamic Relief Worldwide