Creative Leadership

Leaders: Are Your Best Friends Your Employees?

There’s a particular problem that leaders face, and it happens in companies, non-profit organizations, churches, and ministries. Far too often – for whatever reason – the only real friends that CEO’s, pastors, and other leaders have are people who happen to work for them. Look around you and you’ll see it more than you’d expect.

The first response I hear is that these are people who are close to the leader because they’re with him or her every day. They understand the leader, and they share the vision. I fully understand that argument. You certainly want to work with people you like and are friendly with, so hanging with those people from the office seems perfectly fine. But here’s where you run into problems:

You won’t always hear the truth from employees, and that’s one of the most important aspects of being a real friend. It’s not the employees fault – after all they depend on the paycheck, and have to be careful. So I’ve discovered that no matter how “close” you might be – ultimately, they know their job is on the line, and are very careful with what they say.

If you think for a minute that you’re getting the straight dope from employees who you think are your best friends, then you couldn’t be more wrong. It also taints the waters with other employees.

When they see a fellow employee who’s your best friend, it creates an unbalanced environment in the workplace. They see favor happening, and know it’s often based not on the employee’s performance, but on your personal relationship. My recommendation? Find close friends that aren’t employees.

True friends need to have nothing to lose. They need to love you unconditionally – and not be dependent on you for a job. A best friend is your best source of truth for accountability, feedback, and just letting you know when you’ve been a jerk.

I’m sure a number of leaders will respond that this post is poppycock. That they’ve been best friends with an employee for years. Perhaps they were even best friends first, and then they got hired. But believe me, once a “best friend” becomes your employee, something significant changes. When a paycheck is on the line, it creates a barrier to real honesty – certainly not all the time, but sooner or later, your friendship will be compromised for the sake of the job.

And trust me – it’s a two way street. How hard is it to fire your best friend? Think about it.  And if your best friend is currently your employee, don’t just dump them, but know that they won’t be relating to you like an outsider with nothing to lose.

Just remember that a best friend is someone who has nothing material to gain from the relationship.  Outside of your spouse of course, working with your best friend can become a challenge if you’re not careful.

What’s been your experience?

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  1. Reminds me of that oldie by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: “… I got all the friends that money can buy so I never have to be alone, and we keep getting richer but we can’t get our picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone.”

    Here’s the rub. Chief Execs, Senior Pastors, Creative Directors (sorry) tend to work an excessive amount, and enjoy doing it. Therefore, the people that are the next rung down the ladder work an excessive amount if they want to impress the big guy. In addition, these folk are great at sucking up, that’s why they have gotten as far as they have. So by working long hours with the boss they either become friends and get perks or the leader tires of them and they get fired (familiarity breeds contempt).

    The problem is exacerbated when the boss is a male and the employee is a female (or vice versa). Mark Twain’s tweak of the famous phrase come to mind at this point: “Familiarity breeds contempt – and children”. Even if it doesn’t get that far, it can ruin careers and families.

    Phil’s right (again). The onus is on the leader. Grow up and be an example to your team, make friends outside of the office. That means setting boundaries with those closest to you at the office and keeping personal and family time private. You don’t need to always have people sucking up to you. It’s not healthy for leaders or their teams.

  2. Been there….done that….and no it does not work!

    It actually creates a very toxic environment to work in for all. Employees end up back biting and leaders end up frustrated because they don’t know who to listen to. The leader either spends more time being a “puppet master” because he/she enjoys it or they end up constantly turning over staff because they get frustrated with issues and agendas.

    Great blog Phil!

  3. In my personal experience hiring a best friend cost me a decade of relationship.

    As my personal assistant, from my side of the desk, he was the best possible solution. I had to manage very little, and received more than the job required, but over a 18 month period my life long friend built so much resentment that he eventually cut me out of his life all together.

    Now a decade later we are finally rebuilding those bridges, but what a waste. Talent and relationship completely ruined.

    Lesson learned? Arms length from 5 till 9, and as honest as possible from 9 to 5. 

  4. Great post. The flip side, of course, is the career damage to employees who choose to tell the truth, and know they have something to loose. 

    It would be advisable for those employees to have friends they don't (yet) work for.


  5. I’m starting to wonder if it is possible! It’s such a complicated issue for me because my staff are often also people I’m “ministering” too. And I feel like the best way to minister is through relationship – forming friendships. But it has been difficult because my new staff have a strong culture of gossip and that hurts me as the “friend” but as the “boss” I understand.

  6. Very interesting article. However, I would like to submit another side. I have served as a full-time staff pastor at a couple of different churches and the one I struggled the most with was where I served under a man who really was a great pastor (one very known in our city) who had the same mind set that he couldn't be close to his staff. It was very corporate and I was glad when God released me. For the record I remained faithful to the man and he gave me a very kind send off with many very kind words.

    I expect that attitude in the secular world although my secular boss was one of my great friends also and it work out great, mostly because I understood the difference between being a friend and an employee.

    Thank God the church I currently serve at has a very close staff and ever since the pastor dropped the barriers and the denominational rules of "no close friends with your staff" the synergy and the momentum has continued to increase and is NOW incredible.

    After being on staff now for over ten years I can say it was Not always like that. It was especially hard with some spiritually immature staff.

    Now after seeing all three ways I can say there is no substitute for the later, although it is difficult to achieve. Bill Hybels book on Courageous Leadership changed our staff forever for the better. We now have competent, character and chemistry within all our 10 full-time staff pastors and it is absolutely phenomenal working there.

    I can't help but wonder if perhaps secular reasoning has entered the church world. I was taught in bible school that staff should NOT be close to the senior pastor. This is probably great news if you are relationally dysfunctional, but I don't believe it's very Scriptural. Think about it, nobody told Jesus He couldn't be close to three people on his staff and how dare John refer to himself as the ONE whom Jesus loved. Maybe Jesus should have said, "from now on I call you "employees" rather than "I call you friends.""

    Just something to think about

    God bless

    Dr. West 

    Ps Phil keep up the good work, you really are one of Christendom's hero's!   


  7. Great points Dr. West, however being "close" to the leader is one thing.  But when the only close friends the leaders has are employees, that's something else entirely.  I worry about objectivity, honesty, and truth when the "friend" has to balance a paycheck with being frank…I think that's why we're seeing so many casual divorces, financial mismanagement, and other negative issues in the church today.  When all your "friends" are depending on you for a paycheck, it's touch to call leaders to accountability. 

  8. Dr. West – good comments, however, I think using Jesus and the disciples as an example is rather funny. I have worked for many leaders (including senior pastors) who acted like they were the Messiah. If staff (friend or not) happened to have a “Peter” moment they would be given the left foot of fellowship. I don’t think many shepherds can be rightly compared to the Good Shepherd.

  9. I absolutely have enjoyed working with my friends as they are some of the most talented people in the business.  I have "batted well over 1000" on this BUT a few months ago encountered a complete "crash and burn" with my best friend who was working directly under me.  Not only did it crash and burn my friendship but our wives were best friends, our sons and our daughters.


    My advice, keep work and friends separate.  Not to say that you can not be friends with your staff.  That is what creates a fun working environment.  Just know that there should be a definite line in the sand at work.  Also, it's not healthy to be at work with people all day then when you go hang out as friends you end up talking about work all night.  You need to be able to unplug with others. 


    Well here is the elephant in the room. The whole notion of the relationship between 'paid staff' and people in a community of faith. When a faith community (congregation) pays a person to lead them – the 'leader' often becomes a follower because they are too scared of losing their job for preaching something from the pulpit that offends their employers.

    There is also the story of young people who grow up in a local congregation and then get employed as youth pastors by the well meaning congregation. Of course the relationship changes – and too often there is a lot of pain to be endured. Rule #1 don't get a job in the local congregation you grew up in.

    People need to recognise that relationships change in the space where the institutional structures come into contact with the church (proper).




  11. The Gallup Organization has intereviewed tens of thousands of managers in thousands of companies worldwide. They point out (in the book First, Break All the Rules, among others) two relevant points: first, that managers SHOULD play favorites. By this, they mean that managers need to spend the most time with their best employees. We tend, as managers, to put a lot of time and work into our employees who are not doing so well in the hopes they'll shape up, get up to speed, pick up the vibe–whatever. We are spinning our wheels in most cases; great employees show themselves so pretty much immediately. There are exceptions, but for the most part, we learn how to select really good employees by spending time and interacting with and observing the talents and behavior of our best employees.

    And second, they point out that in many, many cases, great managers ARE friends with their employees. They go out together for drinks, they have each other over to their homes, etc. Some managers can do this and others simply cannot create the proper boundaries or make it clear to employees the expectations necessary for business. And this is the thing: if you know how to set the boundaries and you can do it, then more power to you. But if it's not your style and you can't figure out how to keep things professional when they need to be, then don't kid yourself. I think the key is recognizing the appropriate boundary for yourself. Yes, there are times it will blow up on us–I often find that people who say, "Been there, done that," have had ONE situation that did not work out well and have decided, "Never again." We get burned and we decide it was due to our friendship and not any other flaw in the scenario.

    And I agree that it is vitally important to have deep friendships outside of work. It's so true that some of our employees will never feel the freedom to say what must be said because they fear for their livelihoods, no matter how willing we are to hear.

  12. Se você tiver a sorte de ter tido um gerente que tratou como um amigo e se preocupava com sua vida pessoal, você provavelmente vai perceber a diferença deste tipo de amizade genuína pode fazer. Os melhores gestores do mundo não são apenas especialistas em sistemas, processos e competências técnicas – eles são especialistas em sua vida. E, por isso, eles aumentam o seu engajamento e produtividade no trabalho.

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