Jan 2015 Bulletin cover
Volume 83 | Issue 1
January 2015

The Worst Advice I Have Ever Received

I will never forget my first day teaching at Washington Junior High School. My excitement was palpable as I trekked up the two flights of stairs to the classroom I could finally call my own. Unexpectedly, upon reaching the second floor—reams of paper and bulletin board edging in hand—another teacher, a 30-year veteran and head of the English department, stopped me to spout a whole lot of advice.

“I am telling you right now, you better be tough; nice teachers finish last,” she said. “Whatever you do, keep your distance and don’t get personally involved or you won’t sleep at night. These students are needy!”

As I look back over my career, avoiding personal relationships with those who see me as their leader is the worst piece of advice I have received. Yet, it was a caution I would hear in many forms in the years to come.

The first time I became a supervisor, and subsequently each time I have gained more management responsibility, I have been told: “If you have a personal relationship with employees, there will be a perception of favoritism. You will not be able to make sound decisions about performance evaluation, promotions, or adjudicate conflicts between members of your staff.”

My former boss Dick Blackburn was a stickler for this approach. He never ate lunch with any of his employees except on a special occasion, and we did not see him outside of the office. When he was ill his staff took turns making dinner for Dick and his wife Fay, which I know he appreciated. Yet we rarely got to see Dick or visit with him. Not only was he a private person; he was uncomfortable showing closeness with staff members.

MHBCommon wisdom advocates for the “I’m your boss, not your buddy” style of leadership. Proponents contend that even if you think you are being 100% unbiased, you will be second-guessed. And if you think you are not being talked about as a boss, you have another thing coming. If you are friendly with your staff, when you find out what they are saying about you when you are not around—and you will—this is a sure recipe for hurt feelings.

While fusses can certainly happen when you blur the lines of manager and friend, for me, the advantages far outweigh the obstacles. In fact, a body of research examining “Leader-Member Exchange” has identified a more effective approach than the emotionally distant “command and control” management style. In his 2006 Public Organization Review article citing research on Leader-Member Exchange, Leonardo Stringer indicated that positive relationships between leaders and followers increase trust and performance. When this theory has been applied to supervisor-employee relationships, positive outcomes have been reported such as increased job satisfaction, improved communication, perceived empowerment, loyalty, and organizational competitiveness, according to the article.

I cannot ever imagine isolating myself from the people whose livelihood is my ultimate responsibility. We’re part of each other’s lives: meals, outings, hospital visits, funerals, weddings, baby showers, school programs, court hearings, and even driving an employee home after I fired him. I have had staff stay in our spare bedroom when visiting from out of town, loaned a graduate intern a car, made brunch on Saturday morning for employees who just needed to talk, and during a direct-report’s family emergency welcomed her 90-year-old grandmother as a houseguest.

How nice that finally toward the end of my career, my leadership style is validated by this body of research that shows creating a management prototype of reliance and shared collaboration may help produce a culture that is happier, in which employees help each other, and that as a result are better-off and more industrious.

Recently in the Harvard Business Review, Emma Seppälä, associate director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, wrote: “Research suggests that a compassionate workplace fosters engagement not so much through material goods as through the qualities of the organizations’ leaders, such as a sincere commitment to values and ethics, genuine interpersonal kindness, and self-sacrifice.”

I’ve found that by closing some of the distance between supervisor and employee, teacher and student, I’ve benefitted as much as the organization. What I’ve put into those relationships has taught me skills I didn’t know I sought, helped us weather the rough patches, created a willingness to put others’ needs before one’s own, and uncovered big ideas to improve our programs and services. For me, that give-and-take partnership has been the difference between managing and leading, and I’m glad that I’ve chosen to ignore others’ bad advice to the contrary throughout my career.