[April 25, 2020] The U.S. Army is a large organization. A common expectation is that once you meet a soldier, you may never see them again. While that is true, those in your peer group can become close friends. One such Army Engineer Officer and I were on similar career paths as officers. He had a problem that I tried to tell him about, but no one else would also say to him that he was too friendly to our soldiers and Department of Army civilians.
On the face of it, how could anyone disagree that being too friendly is a problem. We all want others to see us as pleasant and approachable to people on our team. We are, after all, happier working for someone we get along with at work. We experience less stress, have higher job satisfaction, and worry less. We also like to be popular. Working with friendly people is a dream come true. Who wouldn’t want to have a pleasant drink with the boss after work hours?
However, leaders are often required to make harsh decisions regarding folks on their team. Those decisions could be firing someone for poor performance, or it could mean giving an employee a reprimand, demotion, or other adverse personnel action. Perhaps the company you work for is forced to downsize it’s personnel or is about to go bankrupt. In the U.S. Army, a leader can be the one who has to order an attack on an enemy position in combat, knowing that the life and death of your soldiers hang in the balance.
Being too friendly is a hindrance to good leadership. Some will try to take advantage of your friendship by asking for special attention or exemption from the rules. It doesn’t mean that they are doing something illegal or unethical. Yet, their request can put the leader in a no-win situation. If the boss wants to be liked and also productive at work, there is a risk both cannot coexist at the same time.
A good boss can avoid being too friendly by setting clear personal boundaries. Boundaries can foster more productive work environments. Those who work for you will see that everyone is treated fairly and evenly. As humans, we have different values, needs, and beliefs. These can lead to conflict, resentment, and stress. Clearly defined boundaries can help prevent these adverse reactions.
My good friend, another Colonel, was eventually forced to resign his commission and retire early from the U.S. Army. He had gone too far on several occasions when several women took his friendliness as hostile sexual advances. I’m sure this was not the case, but perception matters, and his superiors lost confidence in his ability to lead. The end of an excellent career was unfortunate, but it reinforced my thinking that he was too friendly. His other friends never figured it out.