13 Jan '13
Supervisors and staff: Maintaining appropriate boundaries
Leaders have an interesting dilemma when it comes to how close or distant they are socially from those they lead. It is often something that they don't think much about but it has important ramifications for how they relate to others.
There is a difference in the relationship between peers and those one leads. This is obvious when a leader is promoted from within and goes from peer to supervisor. Everyone knows that something has changed and that the relationship is different.
It is different because now one who was a peer is leading those he or she was a peer with. Now instead of relating as peers, they are asking hard questions and holding others accountable for results. Often the transition is not easy. I remember one such transition myself where I was now supervising former peers and some of them never adjusted to it.
The issue of social distance can be framed this way: How close or distant do I position myself as a leader from those I lead, knowing that while we have a collegial relationship it is not by nature a peer relationship?
Some leaders try so hard to be best buds with those they lead that they lose their ability to speak into the lives, ministries, or strategies of their team because that is not the function of being best buds. In other words, in their attempt to be "one of the boys or girls" they lose their ability and authority to lead well. It is a leadership error.
Other leaders are so intent on their leadership role that they become distant and unapproachable from those they lead. Another leadership error because the human element is lost to the leadership role.
Social distance for a leader really depends on the situation. The best leaders are highly personable on a personal level. They care about families and kids and the personal issues of life and easily engage in discussions that deal with the human issues we all face. On that level, the relationship feels like a relationship of peers.
On the other hand, when leading the team, or pressing into a work related issue, they put on the hat of leader and can move into a collegial but clearly a leadership role where they are not afraid to give direct feedback, deal with a difficult issue or press into the work of those they supervise. In this role they are clearly not peers and need to be taken seriously by those they lead.
The most complicated relationships are those where a former peer was also a close friend. Now, there is both a friendship and a supervisory capacity that must be negotiated. In some settings they remain defined by the friendship but in the leadership setting it is the supervisory role that must be realized and acknowledged by both parties.
Wise leaders are both friends and leaders and they understand when it is appropriate for the social distance to be close and when it must be more distant. When social distance is too close it is difficult or impossible to lead. When it is too distant it is difficult to be seen as a leader who cares. Good leaders can and do switch from close to farther depending on the situation. They are collegial and human but also leaders and supervisors. If you are a leader, think about how you negotiate social distance with those you lead.
Leaders can be friends, colleagues and supervisors. They regulate the social distance depending on the situation so that they lead well. But they will never just be "one of the boys or girls."