How close should managers get to their team members?

Management Courses

How important is the relationship I have with my team?  Pretty vital I’d say!  But what does that really mean?  How well does my team need to know me? What’s that balance between being familiar, one of the team and being professional, being their boss?  

These are valuable questions to ponder.  For what it’s worth, I think the tendency has been to air too much on the side of “I’m their boss” and therefore the need to keep a level of distance between me and them.  It’s become a mantra that echoes the corridors of our organisations “you must be professional’ nothing else is acceptable.  What does that really mean?  Often I think it’s interpreted as; I have to be stuffy, starchy, serious, aloof, superior, mysterious, separate, detached, chilly, even unsociable!   Well, excuse my language, but what a load of codswallop!  

OK, I bet most of you are thinking, I’m not any of those things, but look again.  How much are you working at ‘being the boss’, over ‘being the team’?  I would suggest its likely there are many little things on a daily basis that indicate you are the boss, compared to relatively few things that indicate you are part of the team.  Don’t hear me wrong – I’m not saying we should be unprofessional (whatever that is), I’m just highlighting the danger of limiting true relationship with my followers.  

I bet we would all agree with the concept of situational leadership, the need to lead in an appropriate way for a situation rather than have one style alone.  So why then, when it comes to relationship should I think one approach is going to be the best?  And what’s more that one approach has to have some element of ‘distancing myself’ from my team attached to it.  So here it is guys, you heard it first here, note it down and give me the credit for it whenever it surfaces.  What we need is…

‘Situational Intimacy’

© Bannister 2019 😉

Yep, simple yet profound hey! The level of intimacy we show needs to be appropriate for the situation!  I know the word ‘intimacy’ is not a very business word, but I’m convinced it’s a helpful one.  What is intimacy?  It’s the level of closeness we have with another person.  It provides a huge scale for us to consider from totally connected, open, laid bare, through to distant, unknown, cloaked.  It stands to reason there are times when I have to stand apart, but if that is at the expense of those occasions I am close and known, then it cannot be a good thing.  

As I suggested at the top of this blog, I think we’ve overdone the need to stand apart as managers.  

Who helps you when the chips are down?  Who trusts you the most? Who supports you best when you’re struggling?  Who is keen to follow your lead?  It’s those people who have the highest levels of intimacy with you.  If I am only distancing myself with my team, how can I expect them to want to follow me?  Having ‘professional intimacy’ with my team way outstrips the value of distancing myself.  I’m sure this is like the carrot and stick thing.  All the research tells us that the stick works, it is in fact better than ignoring my people.  The tough, hard, critical approach does bring results.  But those results are always shadowed by the performance achieved via a carrot approach.  It’s been well researched, for example, have a read of ‘How full is your bucket’ by Tom Rath.  Praising people can virtually double performance when compared to constant criticism.  Cutting a longer story short, Rath ultimately concludes that there is a perfect carrot stick ratio, that gets the kick up of performance even from the correction if done (he proposes) in a ratio of five praises to one criticism.  I haven’t done the research but I would stake my pension on the prospect that ‘situational intimacy’ would be similar.  We probably need five times as much ‘closeness’ compared to ‘distancing’ with our people.  If that’s the case, we can surmise that the current cultural narrative of “we must be professional” could result in an over cold level of intimacy with my people.  Anecdotally the best bosses I have experienced tend to be the ones that are able to be both intimate and professional.  It’s that salami sausage thing, they know when to give a piece of themselves that is open, honest and revealing, yet they also know when they need to give another slice which is establishing a boundary and some element of separation.  It’s all the same salami, all genuinely them, but it’s intelligent in the relationship.  Recognising that all shades of professional intimacy have legitimacy, if placed in the context of being the most helpful approach in the moment.  

Getting to know your team is so very very important, but maybe letting them get to know you is even more critical.  It’s something that creates bonds, builds safety, engenders the knowledge of when or when not to offer support.  It is at the heart of being a high functioning team, collaborating not just transacting, disclosing not just enquiring.  

Well, having said all that, perhaps you would like to get to know me a little more?  I would certainly welcome that and therefore encourage you to tune into ‘Squeeze’ the podcast.  It’s a brand new management and leadership development podcast from my colleague Will Karlsen and I.  You can catch us for 30 minutes every Monday on whatever platform you prefer to consume your podcasts.  Episode one has been posted and is available, starting with some personal introductions and an opportunity to find out more about us.  Just podcast search the word ‘squeeze’ and we seem to pop up.  Come along and increase your intimacy with us, because we’d love to get closer to you.  

Bob Bannister

Ships Captain