I distinctly remember, when I was young and learning about management and supervision, being taught that “your employees are not your friends!” The message was that one should not allow one’s relationships with employees to become too casual for “obvious” reasons: discipline, termination, and other unpleasant experiences in the workplace are more difficult to cope with if one is dealing with friends. So, the advice went, “keep your distance.” Memory tells me the lessons were not just delivered from my own management mentors but also were taught through courses available from the American Management Associations. My employer at the time put a great deal of stock in those courses; the inexpensive indoctrination they provided served my employer’s objectives.
And I did what I was taught for the most part. I blindly accepted the idea that one did not become friends with someone one might later have to fire or discipline in some other way; because that quite likely would end the friendship. The warnings were clear: don’t get too close to people at work, for that could complicate matters later.
I remember, too, that my relationship with people who had been friends, or at least close acquaintances, changed when I was promoted to supervisory positions and they became my subordinates. Ach. Even the language carries the stench of privileged hierarchy and inferior submission.
Thinking back on the advice, it was clearly meant to protect the manager/supervisor and not afford the employee any safeguards. In hindsight, it seems to me it was an effort to train into the manager/supervisor a weakness; one, though, that offered an easy-out. Employees were not to be treated like other people in general were to be treated; employees were to be treated as performance assets that could and should, if necessary, be replaced with higher-performing human resources. The term, “human resources,” sounds to me a little too much like owned assets. I don’t like it now.
But it’s too late for me to treat many of the people I managed over the course of my career as more than assets used to accomplish objectives. If they under-performed, I attempted to correct their performance; if that failed, I replaced them. I never enjoyed it and often anguished and agonized over it, but I did it because that’s what one did with under-performing assets. And I acknowledge it was far more difficult when the “human resource” with whom I was dealing was someone I liked from a personal perspective. But I carefully tried to avoid becoming a “friend” with those people, even those I liked. I slipped past that boundary more than once but, fortunately, never had to (or chose to) fire someone I called friend. Perhaps that’s because I was/am very careful about who I call friend; they are very few and quite far between. I suppose the story of my self-protection is a tale for another time. Suffice it to say it’s easier to make friends than to lose them. So to avoid losing them, one might opt not to make them in the first place.
The lies of supervision can insinuate themselves into one’s personal life, I think. Though relationships outside employment are quite different from those in an employer/employee accord, the discomfort or outright pain that arises when those engagements split apart resemble one another. So, the rationales behind supervisory training can creep into the amicable bond between people outside work. The purposive distance, meant to lessen emotional pain in the event of a “break-up” in an employment relationship, places a wedge between people outside work life, too.
I’m just thinking with my fingers here. I don’t know whether my off-the-cuff assessments have any merit, but I think they might. I think they describe, at least to some extent, my own personal history, both inside and outside the work relationship.
I see evidence, though, that change has taken place in the workplace and continues to redefine work relationships. Employers increasingly understand that employees are valuable and deserve supportive emotional environments. That goes beyond supevisor/ subordinate relationships. Supportive emotional environments can be pervasive throughout the employment environment. Should. I think I see more evidence of that taking place as a younger workforce begins to assume greater influence over company culture. I hope my evidence is not just a misinterpretation of interactions I see and hear about.