Should Supervisors Be Everybody's Best Friend?

You should have a certain aura, they warned me when handing me the coveted title of “Vice Principal” (which actually translated to “Principal” since there actually was no position for that) years ago, leaving me with visions of myself entering meetings like Cinderella—daintily floating out of her pumpkin carriage on her way to the ball. 

You should be respected, and never get too friendly. 

Never, ever, they admonished, be friends with the team that you supervise. 

The advice was flowing assuredly my way like a wave of soft threats and I felt hypnotized by it; my very personality felt stifled but I could only sit quietly and listen and absorb.  Once again, the vision of a distant, glorious, and almost mystical Disney princess popped into my mind as I entertained the thought of actually wearing glass-ish slippers to meetings from that day on (or…not). 

But then I thought to myself:

Wai-hait a second here. 

Cinderella lost her flipping shoe; midnight made her fairy tale end in an unceremonious poof…and who exactly wants to be idolized anyway? 

‘Aint no body ever learned nuffin’ from Cinderella. 

I remember how awkward I felt trying to do the pretty Syrian princess thing way back in the day when I was engaged—and how terribly I fit that role.  It just wasn’t me.

But those words still haunt me until now—aura, respect, and absolutely no buddy-buddy

This, I was taught, is the ideal role a Supervisor will mold his or her character around.  And it appears that, around the world, this concept of the slightly-cold, distant Supervisor is celebrated as legit.

But is that the ideal characteristic of a leader in the workplace?

The advice I was given reminded me of the constant battle I had my first year of teaching in Syria—where I was taught never to allow myself to be “liked” by the students.  I worked so very hard to not be “friends” with my students (when I was only a few years older than them at the time) that I truly inhibited learning and wound up teaching myself a very effective lesson instead—that, in my newly-formed opinion, it is ok to befriend your students. 

No, really—it is

Because being friends with them doesn’t mean that you can’t discipline someone when that need arises, or coach someone when that need arises, or—shudder—fail a student on a biology exam.  It just means that they like you; and from my experience, this only facilitates learning when handled appropriately.  In fact, being friends with your students can eliminate many problems that power struggles actually cause, and can also teach them great life-skills about humility and team-work in the process (I have learned to savor the opportunity to apologize gracefully to my students when I make a mistake--as I feel them simultaneously learning from me the art of lowering one’s ego to say sorry). 

I began to think that the rule to never be friends with one’s students must have been created by some bitter and unlikeable teacher who was attempting to self-vindicate.  So I threw that rule out of the window with an unceremonious clunk, and who would have thunk’d it?  I wound up accomplishing so much afterwards in my next teaching position that my success snowball hit a glass ceiling in the capacity of “Teacher” and “Department Head” and I wound up finding myself awarded a spiffy new “Supervisor” hat as well.

So, I decided to tuck the well-intentioned advice I had just received into the dustball-filled corners of my subconscious and instead give things a go my way—I would recreate my ideal role of a Supervisor and truly throw the rulebook out of the window. 

Here’s what I did, which shaped a few key beliefs I now have about the ideal Supervisor.  Although these rules were obviously in the sphere of education, I believe that they can be applied to virtually any field:

1.     Be Your Teammates’ Best Friend:

On the first day I, in the capacity of Vice Principal, met my new team of teachers in Saudi Arabia, I remember getting so frustrated with the computer that I vehemently called it “Poopy!” to which one of my (now friends) responded, “Hey now—that kind of language is really crossing the line.”  We all had a good laugh, and guess what?  In no way did this little playful banter make me less respected by anyone in my team.  In fact, it only made me that much more approachable.  Teachers were more willing to come to me with their weaknesses before I ever had to call them out on issues because they saw me as a friend who would help them before they feared that I would hold them accountable as their boss.  This open, honest, and real behavior never would have happened if I had tried some of that Cinderella nonsense that I was told to use prior to accepting my new position (accepting it wasn’t a choice, but that’s besides the point).  As another perk: my own flaws and quirks were more easily forgiven by everyone on my team because I never set up myself with that yucky “high-and-mighty,” fragile ego hogwash that everyone could enjoy watching the fall of.  And, let’s face it—everyone loves watching pompous fools when their egos go tumbling down, but no one wants to see a friend make a mistake without encouraging them and picking them back up again (even when that friend is higher-ranking than they are).  Truly, friendship can be a solid backbone upon which strong work relationships are built across ranks.

2. Give Gifts; Receive Love:

Yes, that’s the tradition of the Prophet Mohammad (p.b.u.h.) but I use it in the workplace at all times in addition to my non-work-related friendships.  Just like I used to allocate a percentage of my own salary every month for my classroom when I was a teacher, I began to increase that fiscal number to include my amazing new team of teachers.  I still firmly believe that all leaders in the workplace should do this if their job position does not give them a budget already for spoiling their team.  I brought every teacher and staff member in my team cutesy hot-pink and key-lime-green bath sets from Pier-1 (clearance, yay) when I met them as a reminder to always “de-stress” and savor the good stuff.  I fed them; brought them snacks, gave giveaways, and always invited them to after-hours coffee and lunch.  I remember stepping into the teacher lounge one day to find one of my teachers holding a gift basket I had given her for finishing her lesson plans—the basket had colorful sticky notes, highlighter pens, bookmarks, neon paperclips, and all sorts of little nerdy things that only a teacher could get excited about.  She was waving it in front of the face of her friend from another school (we had six schools sharing one campus) and telling her, “Look what my Supervisor gives me!” and her friend was whining that she wanted to be a part of our team.  There are no words to explain how good I felt for creating an environment that my team was proud to be a part of (and I have to admit that I enjoyed being the envy of the other schools on our shared campus, too!).  Giving gifts was one of the fastest ways to get into the hearts of my team members, and to build a sense of high morale and a family-like, loving belonging in the process.

3.     Train Before You Blame:

This was a bit of advice my mentor, Ali Kobaissi (who hired me) taught me.  There probably aren’t many other simple sentences that had as much impact on my professional development than this one.  If ever possible, I learned to take responsibility and accept blame on behalf of any mistakes made by a member of my team.  I found that my teachers were a thousand times more likely to try to prevent me from getting in trouble on their behalf than they were likely to try to haul themselves out of a rut after they had been shamed.  And I learned the power of making a good impression on your team through your actions and not simply by giving off airs—I would stay up all night long if I had to so that I could guarantee that every meeting was perfectly arranged and coworkers would find themselves with fancy packages, water bottles by their seats, pens, notepads, healthy snacks, and whatever else I could place out for them in order to give the meeting a professional, prepared vibe.  I wanted them to leave every meeting feeling like they had a comprehensive training package to which they could refer for their every need and question.  I wanted them to feel set-up for an organized career so that they never felt that they were failing to meet expectations because of something that was out of their control.  I fought to create systems for every single thing—from filing minutes to including the team in meeting presentations and workshops, to organizing support systems through which teachers could help one another with alternating strengths and weaknesses.  I found that when you focus on training, developing, and helping your team—you really minimize the mistakes made that wind up leading to blaming and disciplinary action.  Most people just don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Hey, I’d like to be a total failure at work today!”  The reason employees make mistakes is usually because of miscommunication on the part of the management (yes, I said it, and I mean it).  Also, when the management is totally on their game, the truly bad apples suddenly become very obvious to spot because they can no longer hide behind their chronic blaming of other parties’ deficiencies for their own lack of work.  They can then be isolated and given room for improvement or just given the boot.  I found that the cliche, "train before you blame" can also be read as code for, "Train so you don't have to blame!"

So, there you have it!  Three of my secrets for effective management and leadership, and being a friend is really the solid foundation upon which it is all built for me. 

What about you?  Do you have management experience and any tips to share?  Have you had any great, or maybe not-so-amazing Supervisors that succeeded or failed at implementing the strategies discussed above? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below!

Dena AtassiComment