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How Personal Should Employees and Managers Be?

By Mary Graves, Ph.D.
May 1, 2014

We live in an age of social media, in which a good part of the population engages in ubiquitous personal communication and rather public announcements about many details of their lives.

The modern workplace is not immune to this trend, so besides having to contend with the question of whether employees are frittering their time away on Facebook or actually engaging in crucial company-related social media outreach, managers also face the issue of exactly how personally to engage with their employees.

Gone are the days when stern disciplinarians ruled from the corporate roost, laying down edicts and expecting nothing more in return than a snappy salute from every employee.

That said, does the generally more relaxed and human-centered modern workplace mean that managers are supposed to become buddy-buddy with their employees? Maybe become official Facebook "Friends?" Or perhaps act like a benevolent parent, kind uncle, or helpful older sibling?

The answer is no.

This is not to say managers should not be friendly and even personal. But there's a difference between being friendly and being a friend or relative.

Many workplaces fondly refer to themselves as fostering a "family" atmosphere, and though effective companies share some characteristics of healthy families, there are many real-life differences. Not the least of these is that families don't usually face the challenge of having to force members out and cut off all their familial benefits when profits plummet.

Even so, as long as managers are human beings themselves and are in charge of other human beings rather than cyborgs, they will have to develop personal relationships with those who report to them.

But this is important, so please take note: Personal does not mean "intimate"—in any way, shape or form.

"For managers, engaging their employees does not mean having to go out for lunch or after-work beers with them, or hearing all about their dysfunctional family relationships."
This is where many managers have gone off the rails in recent decades, thinking that engaging their employees means having to go out for lunch or after-work beers with them, or hearing all about their dysfunctional family relationships. (Even worse: being expected to offer advice about those relationships!)

These kinds of interactions too often cross a line that leads to inappropriate or illegal or plain knuckleheaded behavior, and the courts have often punished it severely in the harassment suits that follow. This has in turn led to sometimes heart-rending confusion and hesitation, as when one of my clients years ago wanted to tell his retiring elderly secretary she looked nice the day of her retirement party but asked me to tell her for him instead.

What is a modern manager to do?


Take an avid interest in your employees' performance—the motivators, incentives and disincentives to which they respond most strongly.

Encourage them. Listen closely to the needs they express in order to do their jobs more effectively.

Care about their job satisfaction. You do not have to like your employees, but you do have to help them succeed in their jobs.

Help them see how important they are to the company's operation, how vital to its results, how their skills and talents fit in with the company's goals—and how that fit can get even better.

Be kind, supportive, understanding—and challenging. Your job is to coax better performance out of the people under your charge, so that the company's performance can improve and everyone can feel good about being part of something important and successful.

That is personal in a way that everyone can understand and appreciate.

See previous post: Negative Feedback and Its Impact on Performance Review


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