You’re the Boss – Friendship Is Not Up To You


“Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence. True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation.” – George Washington

You diplomatically read an employee the riot act and he feels like punching you. You very gingerly explain to another employee that he is lacking in some skill or grace, and he resents you, even hates you, for it. It’s not fun to be disliked, but it’s a price you must be willing to pay if you want to be a good business leader.

A business leader’s first job is to grow and improve the business. Sometimes, that means nurturing and praising employees. Sometimes, it means criticizing or disciplining them. How they react, you can’t control. But if you are concerned with their reaction — concerned about how they will feel about you personally — you can’t do your job.

It’s a tough dilemma.

Some say the solution is to “never mix business and friendship.” But I don’t think you have to go that far.

This is how I do it. I make myself open to friendship with anyone and everyone who works for me. I don’t solicit it and I don’t try to deepen it unilaterally, but I do accept it –happily, in most cases — when I think it’s offered.

If I sense that my employee/friend wants to take advantage of the relationship — to gain some business advantage by trading off the personal relationship — I make an immediate mental note to let the friendship die. I remind myself that the primary relationship is a business one, and that the friendship is a nice but unnecessary extra.

If my employee/friend underperforms in terms of his business duties, I make it a point to treat him as I would any other employee. If he resents not being treated specially, I make that mental note again. I don’t want to lose these business friendships, but I realize that it’s not up to me to keep them. What it comes down to is this: We can be friends so long as it is a true friendship — one that’s based on supporting one another personally. If you try to mix business into our friendship, you lose my friendship.

For me, this is a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy. Someone who mixes business with our personal relationship is either trying to take advantage of me (and is therefore untrustworthy both as a friend and as an employee) or is dangerously dumb. In either case, he is likely to repeat this behavior. There is one exception to this one-strike rule. Everybody gets one free pass for being drunk at an office party.

You can press me up against the wall and tell me how underpaid or overworked you are, stinking of booze, and you won’t lose my friendship — if you do it once.