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Building effective relationships with those you manage doesn’t have to mean keeping your distance, but it’s all about balance.

One of the most common bits of advice given to new managers is to avoid getting too close to the people you manage. It’s important advice, but it vastly oversimplifies the relationship between manager and direct report. Ignoring this advice will lead to problems when you need to handle hard situations or deliver tough feedback, but following it at face value can rob you of rich relationships that will make you a better and more effective manager.

My first management role involved assuming leadership of a team that I’d already been part of for more than a year. I was suddenly responsible for the professional performance of people I considered friends. Learning to navigate the balance between manager and friend in that role became foundational to my personal management philosophy. 

The right balance will be different for every manager and every situation, and finding it determines if you develop deep, trusting relationships that foster autonomy, or devolve into suspicious micromanagement. Here are some of the things I learned to help find the right balance for yourself.

Closeness lets you relate

In Everything Starts with Trust, Harvard Business Review authors Frances X. Frei and Anne Morriss identify trust as “one of the most essential forms of capital a leader has” in leading others effectively. They introduce the concept of the “Trust Triangle”, which has three key drivers that help leaders build trust:

  • Authenticity
  • Empathy
  • Logic

Interestingly, understanding the task at hand (logic) is the only trust driver that is competence-related. The other two – authenticity and empathy – are rooted in relationships. Can others see the real you (authenticity), and do you take the time to understand the real them (empathy)?

If you’re too work-focused with your reports, it’s likely you’re lacking authenticity and empathy in those relationships. This makes it difficult to build the trust and psychological safety needed to deliver the kinds of feedback that foster growth. It also makes you less likely to receive the candid feedback you need to grow as a leader.

Too much distance also means you miss out on the broader context of who each of your reports is as a person. If your conversations constantly focus on their assigned tasks, they might never have the chance to tell you what work truly excites them, or where they hope to go in their career. Connecting with your reports about life outside of work may seem extraneous, but that connection builds more of the empathy and authenticity that makes you an effective leader than any work conversation can.

The most obvious sign that you might be maintaining too much distance in your relationships with your reports is if you only talk about work topics in your 1:1s. It’s critical that you connect on a human level in those meetings, taking the time to talk about common interests and things happening outside of work. This builds the trust required for an effective management relationship.

Distance lets you empower

While building strong relationships with your reports is important, Patrick Lencioni introduces the idea of a “first team” in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The basic idea is that the primary team you relate to and rely on for support as a leader should be your organizational peers, not the people you manage. It can be tempting to spend all of your time with your team, focusing on those relationships and the work that you’re directly responsible for delivering. 

If you do that, you risk building an us vs. them mindset, where you’re myopically optimizing your team’s work, without paying attention to how that work fits into the broader goals of your department and the company. Building relationships with your peer managers and others in the broader organization will help you lead your team to deliver more valuable work.

The less obvious corollary to the first team idea is that the people you manage should be a first team as well, and that first team should not include you. If you’re always present, constantly involved in the details of the team, contributing to every decision, you’re likely creating a dependency on yourself. Over time, this will rob the people you manage of the try-fail-learn-succeed cycle that’s so critical to growth. Instead, you should be trying to work your way out of a job when it comes to day-to-day work, helping your team build the knowledge and confidence to make decisions and seek guidance only when they need it.

If routine meetings get rescheduled when you’re unavailable or leave a long list of questions for you to answer when you return, your team is likely too dependent on you for making decisions. Likewise, if you have to do significant prep work ahead of time in order for your team to remain productive when you’re out of the office, you might need to give your team a little more space to operate. Pulling back a bit to give your team more time to forge their own identity likely won’t be comfortable at first, but you’ll be  repaid by accelerated productivity and growth in the long term.

Safety guides the balance

While forging these relationships, it is important to remember that as a manager, you hold significant influence over your direct reports’ work lives. You have control over what they get to work on, when they get raises and promotions, and can even cause them to lose their job. The power dynamics of the relationship are strongly balanced in your favor.

This power is a double-edged sword. Using it lets you build psychological safety on your team by shaping behavior and removing individuals from the team that persistently make others feel unsafe. But the power disparity can also make your reports feel unsafe unless they trust that you will use your power fairly and only when necessary. 

Getting the balance right can be tricky, but seeing evidence that your team’s sense of safety is growing is a good indicator that you’re on the right track. To thrive, your reports need a relationship with you that’s authentic and makes them fully seen, but they also need room to try things and learn so they can grow.

If you learn to give them both things at the same time, your relationships will be exactly where they should be, and your team might just surprise you with what they’re able to accomplish.