Each Monday, BND staff writer Brittney M. Helmrich will answer your questions about careers, leadership, office life and social media in her advice column, "Dear Brittney." Got a professional problem you just can't figure out? Send your conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Dear Brittney" to have your questions featured.
I oversee a staff of 10 employees. Over the years, we've become friendly, and I've become a sounding board for their personal problems. This has become quite overwhelming and is starting to affect productivity. How do I go about setting a boundary and redefining my position as their supervisor without hurting anyone's feelings?
- Bad at Boundaries
Dear Bad at Boundaries,
Establishing a friendly relationship with your staff is important, and your willingness to listen to your employees really says a lot of good things about you as a boss. It's obvious your employees appreciate that you're there for them, but it sounds like they're taking that appreciation a few steps too far, because it's interfering with their actual work. So, you're right. It's absolutely time to set limits — and that may not be as tricky as you might think.
Your employees seem to see you as both a boss and a friend, which may seem like an issue. But it will likely work in your favor if you approach the situation the right way. If your employees really do care about you on both a personal and professional level, they'll understand that the boundaries you set are in the best interests of everyone involved.
However, while you're figuring out how to take back your authority as their supervisor, be sure not to close yourself off from your staff completely. Even when you set boundaries, you'll still want your employees to feel like they can come to you in times of need — that's part of what makes a great boss. If you totally alienate your employees and they feel like no one wants to hear them, they could become uncomfortable and unhappy at work and ultimately leave your team for another position where they feel more included and appreciated.
One way to find balance between being a strict boss and being a lax friend is to set aside time each week for employees to check in with you about the things going on in their lives. Similar to a professor's office hours, you can set up a block of time that you keep free of meetings and let employees know that if they need to chat, they can simply knock on your door.
Another option? Have team lunches. If you can swing it, encourage your team to take their lunch breaks together and eat with them. Make lunchtime a time when work isn't the focus, and keep things open and friendly. This way, you can make time to pal around with your employees like usual or listen to their problems, but you're not cutting into your actual working hours. [See Related Story: Dear Brittney: My Co-Workers Are Excluding Me ]
Happy hours are another opportunity to maintain a friendly relationship with your staff. If a drink or two after hours is already part of your workweek routine, great — you can use that time to bond with your employees about things unrelated to work. If not, now may be a good time to start.
In any case, you just want to make sure your employees know that you're not setting boundaries for personal reasons, but for professional ones. You say you're overwhelmed, but not that you don't want to continue the friendly relationship you've built with your team over the years. You don't want to hurt their feelings, and it sounds like you do want to continue the relationship you've built — just with a reminder that you're still the boss, and with a whole lot more productivity going on in the workday. Setting aside time for your team — be it through lunches, happy hours or an "office hour" sort of setup — will emphasize the importance of keeping things professional but will allow you to continue being there on a personal level when the going gets tough.
When you've figured out the boundaries you want to set and you're ready to implement them, have a team meeting, and make sure you present it to your staff in the most sensitive way possible. Let them know that you care, and that your door is still open to them, but that productivity is down. Tell your team that you love that you're all so close-knit and friendly, and that you want to maintain that kind of relationship, but that everyone — yourself included — needs to step up their game and cut back on the personal conversations during office hours. I think it's really important to emphasize that you're including yourself, because it will show your staff that you're not frustrated at them but rather trying to work with them to solve the problem.
If you approach it with your employees' feelings in mind — which you're clearly already doing — everything should go smoothly. I doubt that your team will hate you for pointing out the issue or setting boundaries. Your employees probably don't even realize how overwhelming it can be, or how much it's cutting into their (and your) ability to get work done. Talking about this with your employees openly and honestly should be enough of a wake-up call to them to focus a little less on personal problems and a lot more on productivity, and you should all be able to find an appropriate balance.
It may not seem possible to successfully be both a good friend and a good boss, but I think, in this case, you can have your cake and eat it too. The fact that you submitted this question in the first place shows just how much you care about your job and your staff, and that can only lead to success.