women tend to emphasize the fluid nature of the boundaries between personal life and work life. But fluid boundaries can also cause confusion. One research participant, Penny, an administrator in higher education, explained, “My female staff will come to me and say, ‘How’s your boyfriend?’ They feel like a relationship with me should be all access.” Penny wanted to be friendly but was afraid of undermining her authority as the boss. She wondered whether she should just keep a distance and stay aloof.
In conducting research for my book on women’s relationships in organizations, New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together, I found that women expect closer relationships with female bosses than with male bosses. Sheri, a technology manager, expressed it this way:
I had a woman boss who was more task focused, and it made it harder for me to work for her. With a guy, I would have expected [a task focus], but I expected a little bit more of a relationship from her. It was all she could do to say, “How was your weekend?” That made it real uncomfortable for me. If a guy did that, it wouldn’t bother me as much.
This difference in expectations means that when female bosses do not invest the time to be friendly with female employees, these employees may not be as motivated or productive as they could be. The good news is that our comfort with fluid relationship boundaries can contribute to our successes at building teams and highly productive workforces. The bad news is that fluid boundaries can cause confusion and damage relationships when not handled well.
What is the answer? Scholars, and about 25 percent of the women in my research, propose that women bosses learn to distinguish between being friends and being friendly with other women at work. I would go a step further and say that this does not need to be an either/or option. We can be both friends and friendly as the boss, but we need to be able to name our role—boss or friend—in any given interaction. We also need to have a clear understanding of how the relational expectations differ for these two roles.
Use a Tool Called Role Hats
Women leaders can learn to manage role and relationship boundaries. We can be friendly and still be respected as the boss. We can even be the bosses of friends without damaging the relationship. The key is to learn how to discuss and negotiate our role and relationship boundaries. Sharon, the CEO of a healthcare services organization, applies a useful tool called role hats:
To be friends at work requires total transparency. I explicitly name the role that I’m coming from—boss or friend. And we are always clear about how the hats work—what I can and cannot talk about when I have my boss hat on and how I see my responsibilities. We can also be friends outside of work as long as we stay clear about our hats.
The key, then, is to be explicit about your expectations. We can be friendly and still be the boss, but we must be clear about what wearing the boss hat means to us, as well as make sure we understand our employees’ expectations of us. Here are some steps you can take to make this work:
- Name each person’s functional role, such as boss, friend, or colleague.
- Discuss each person’s needs in each role and really listen to one another.
- Exchange suggestions for behaviors that could meet each person’s needs in each role.
- Establish ground rules for how you will alert each other to your use of a role hat, such as:
- Ask me which hat I’m wearing.
- Ask me to change hats any time.
- Communicate honestly with each other whenever you cannot comply with a request and always explain why.
Good relationships at work are important for our well-being, satisfaction, and success. Because many women expect more of a relationship from female bosses than from males, we need to learn to invest in relationships and to manage their boundaries when necessary. And we can do this.]]>