A friend recently told me about a phone conversation she overheard between a co-worker and their manager. Ending the work-related call, the co-worker said “I love you” to her boss by default, not realising until another colleague pointed it out. She was mortified, thinking she had simply used another default line, ‘have a good weekend’, and was baffled by the confused reply of “um.. I love you too?”
While this was an innocent mistake, it brings up the topic of professional relationships and how, or if, they should differ from personal relationships.
It’s only natural to develop personal relationships at work. If you work full-time, you probably spend more time with your colleagues than your own family. With this in mind, the relationships you have with colleagues can have a strong bearing on job satisfaction, and are a vital part of feeling comfortable and happy at work.
But there are varying degrees of risk that comes when blurring the boundaries between work and our personal lives. At one end of the spectrum are the sordid affairs that can end up in a HR conversation, or even the courts, such as the recent case of Seven CEO Tim Worner and former executive assistant-turned mistress, Amber Harrison.
At the other, are moments of awkwardness that can be overcome with communication and understanding. In my friend’s example, the co-worker quickly texted her boss to explain the error, and the manager wisely made light of it in the next team meeting, breaking through the awkwardness and putting an end to any further jeers.
Coaching leaders across a range of industry sectors over the years, I’ve found there are significant differences between companies in relation to the types of relationships that they encourage between employees. An intern from my office recently joined a media organisation, and said the expectation was to become friends with the team and go out socially. It was seen as the hallmark of a positive sales team in this organisation. In others, a polite and respectful rapport is the standard.
It’s wise to make positive relationships a priority when moving to a new team, not only for your own happiness, but also because it’s handy to have someone in your corner to confer with when challenges arise. A work ‘family’ can result in a strong and cohesive team if the dynamic is right, but, just like a real family, moments of drama can arise.
Drawing a line is particularly important when it comes to the relationship with your boss. No-matter how well you get along, always maintain a level of respect when it comes to work matters. Never take advantage of the friendship to try and get something you want at work. These conversations should always happen in a professional context and tone.
If you’re a leader, be mindful that appearing too friendly with certain team members can lead to suspicion of favouritism, and may unintentionally leave others feeling excluded. Look for points of common ground with everyone, share snippets of what’s going on in your life, and show a genuine interest in your team members’ families, hobbies, pets and the like, without over-sharing or prying. Social occasions involving alcohol can be a minefield, so know your limits and don’t let work drinks become a forum for airing personal opinions about the people or organisation you work for.
Even if your colleagues don’t see you behaving inappropriately first-hand, over-sharing on social media can undermine your professionalism. Being Facebook friends with your staff, or your manager, should be avoided, and always be aware of the potential for inappropriate comments, photos and other information you share online to come back to haunt you. If in doubt, leave it out.
By the same token, developing a reputation for being an unfriendly or uncaring colleague can also be damaging. Mindfulness and common sense can go a long way towards striking that sweet spot.