Being too close to your employees can backfire

Over the years, leadership books, blogs and podcasts have encouraged leaders to form close relationships with their teams as another linchpin in organizational efficiency. But what if being too close to your employees can backfire?

A recently published research article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, suggests that it could.

The research is based on what management scholars call the “social exchange theory”. This theory states managers’ and employees’ interactions are transactional, based on an offering of work-related resources. These interactions build the relationship and influence how both will behave in future transactions. Based solely on this theory, one would think that being close to your employees would have a positive return.

Being too close to your employees backfires when the team feels their relationship with you gives them a longer grace period. “He/She won’t get too mad if I put this off because they know what’s going on in my personal life.” “Aw, don’t worry about my manager, we’re tight.” These sentiments are the start of the decaying efficiency leaders work so hard to achieve.


The implication is that managers who maintain strong working relationships with employees may face an unexpected risk: the employees they’re closest to might hamper their efficiency by taking longer to fulfill immediate requests. 

HRR.org, Zhenyu Liao, Wu Liu, Zhaoli Song

The Solution

I am in no way suggesting you build a proverbial wall between you and your teams. I just think you should take some time to outline clear expectations and define boundaries. When leaders notice a drop in effort and responsiveness, it could mean their team has misunderstood the goals or might be falling into the “I’m tight with the manager” mindset.

Outlining clear boundaries and expectations will also allow a deepening of the relationship. I’ve found the “expectation” talk in any relationship helps remove any grey areas and allow for more honest, free-flowing communication to exist.

After all, we spend more time with those we work with than our families so we all want to have close relationships at work and enjoy some of what we do. Just be sure to remember that “the work” still has to be done and needs to be done in a timely manner. When either the leader or the employ takes advantage of the relationship, it opens Pandora’s box.

So just be careful and start having the expectation and boundary conversations now if you haven’t already had them with your team. If you don’t, you will learn the awful lessons that come with being too close to your employees.


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