What is a team leader, and what is the appropriate boundary between being a boss and being a buddy?
It’s a common refrain, especially for first-time supervisors, and those who have risen through the ranks and already have established friendships with those they will now supervise.
But the boundaries need to be set. Here's why, plus seven tips to draw the line of boss vs. buddy to improve your management skills.
7 Ways to Improve Management Skills by Separating Boss and Buddy
#1- Compartmentalizing seldom works
It sounds good. For some people maybe it actually works. But this strategy usually backfires because it’s just not realistic to compartmentalize when it comes to relationships. If you are tempted to say I’m your boss at work and your buddy after hours, you are attempting to compartmentalize. The problem is, this is hard to do when the going gets tough.
Even if you are extremely disciplined about keeping the work hours and non-work our relationship separate, others may not be as adept as you are. That’s why they will feel betrayed when you have to act as the boss but they were expecting the friend response.
When you become the boss, things will be different and you must be willing to establish your role regardless of the setting. The fact that you are the boss doesn’t change at the end of the workday.
#2- Give your team time without you
Remember that when the boss is there, the dynamic changes. If you are always there, and the team has no opportunity to engage with each other, they are missing out on relationships that are healthy in any workplace.
Check yourself to be sure you aren’t trying too hard to stay in control of every relationship. Back off and give space to your direct reports so they can form connections without you in the way. Give them a chance to talk about you – just the way you want to talk about your boss with your peers.
#3- Find ways to support the team without being in front of them
You don’t have to be present to show your largess and team support. When the members of the team go out to dinner without you, pick up the tab via phone. Or give them tickets to go someplace you will not be going. You can be a buddy in the background.
Sticking To Your Role Helps Your Team Understand Your Role as Manager
#4- Understand the complexity and impact of blurred lines
If you are simultaneously trying to be the boss and the buddy during work hours, you are setting yourself up to fail. That's why it's so important to understand and answer this critical question: "What Is a Team Leader?" The inconsistency and unpredictability of your role jeopardizes relationships more than it enhances them. It’s confusing and demotivating when it appears that you’ve given buddy status to a select few or when you’ve revoked buddy status and gone back to being the boss.
#5- You owe it to everyone to remain objective
When you put yourself in the role of buddy, you lose objectivity. Others will see this and question your capacity as a leader. Your opinion about your direct reports matters to the organization as a whole. As you write performance reviews or are engaged in conversations about hiring, firing and promoting others, your lack of objectivity (or even the perception that you’ve lost objectivity) can seriously derail your career. Be careful!
#6- Examine your motivation
Why do you want to be a buddy to your direct reports? Are you hoping to win a popularity contest as manager? If so, prepare to be disappointed. Managers can be respected and well liked, but they are in that respect by being fair-minded and objectives. Being everyone’s buddy causes disrespect and the fleeting feelings of popularity are a short-term trade-off you don’t want to make.
#7- Consider how your actions impact your team
You can do some socializing with members of your team. Moderation is the key. You want to set appropriate expectations and maintain a decorum that clearly indicates you know your own role. When you act in ways that attempt to mask your role, you’re not fooling anyone. You are causing confusion and it’s not fair to your team to do this.
Knowing the Difference Between Boss and Leader Will Earn You Respect
It’s okay to be the boss. You can maintain mutual respect and support by not going overboard as the buddy.
Next Steps to Figure Out "What Is a Team Leader?"
Deb Calvert is a certified Executive Coach, Keynote Speaker, Certified Master with The Leadership Challenge®and Trainer. She is the founder of People First Productivity Solutions, building organizational strength by putting people first since 2006.
Editor's note: This blog was originally published December 2016 and has been recently updated.