Every now and then, especially when I work with clients on the topic of team engagement, one of the first questions I am asked is around how to manage the personal and professional boundaries between management and staff. From a theoretical perspective, the opportunity to take an objective stance and answer the question with brute confidence is enticing, but these leaders are not always searching for this kind of response. What they want is a subjective and experiential account of how to deal with these issues. To this end, showing restraint on trying to provide “the right solution” and giving more focus on sharing an authentic version of these dynamics from my own private collection of experiences appears to be more valuable and often helps provide a broader understanding of how they can apply certain ideas to their own practices.
First of all, everything should be contextualised according to specific situations and there is no such thing as a one size fits all approach when addressing the incredibly nuanced interactions between workplace professionals. I do, however, have a clear view on what I see as a universal truth about how leaders can build trust and not only increase team productivity, but also enjoy the benefits of working in a warm and collaborative environment. What I say to clients is that at some point you will need to go below the surface level and show a genuine interest in your team members motivations, beliefs and values. This does not mean you have to become best friends and hang out together every weekend nor do you need to explore their deepest and darkest secrets. Simply understanding what makes them tick and being able to sincerely connect to the point where your direct reports can feel completely supported and have that psychological safety to be themselves and contribute in their own way is absolutely key. I am afraid the reverse approach of maintaining social distance (in an emotional sense that is) will inevitably result in fear or an unhealthy level of internal competitive behaviour, which is typical of a toxic hierarchical and aristocratic organisational structure. You decide which system is sustainable in the long run and which avoids the arduous and costly process of regular staff turnover.
But then I hear you say: “Ok, I have opened up and developed a more meaningful work relationship and things have happened (maybe out of my control). The risk of things getting messy and complicated as the professional relationship dissolves is now very real and its just something I would rather not have to deal with right now.” Generally, I have two broad responses to these types of statements, which ultimately depends on the kind of person I’m dealing with. The first has a financial connotation by using the risk vs return/reward analogy and assumes that there is only so much a heavily guarded leader can receive from those that follow him or her. The second takes a slightly personal tone by using the phrase: “It is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all”. Regardless of the terminology I use, I think its clear that I do not sit on the fence on this one!
The last point I want to make is around the notion of vulnerability. There is no doubt that we talk about it often enough and we know how effective it is for leaders to admit to their mistakes, show their human side and help create an environment that encourages the adoption of a growth mindset. In reality, this crucial leadership trait is in short supply in many instances and the truth is that sometimes it only involves taking one small step that can make all the difference. This could be sharing a personal story that lets people in and has the ability to connect with others on an emotional level. Also, one of the positives to come out of the early lockdowns was the possible altering of perceptions or removal of potential biases that some may have held, when senior executives were confronted with letting people into their “personal living spaces”. In my view, what a great way to level the playing fields, dispel myths and enable such a humble and powerful way of inviting vulnerability without saying a word. I believe there is much we can learn from this.