Friendship and Work: Do They Mix?

draw the line

Our research for Leadership Matters tells us that a huge percentage of today’s museum leaders, at least in the United States, work in small organizations, often small history museums. Small museums–and by that we mean organizations with fewer than 10 staff–have their own leadership issues. One is certainly the line between friendship and work, and for the director, that may be the difference between authenticity and too much information or it may be the difference between being friendly and being friends. Because sadly, if you’re a director, your friends, your drinking buddies, the folks you let your hair down with, shouldn’t be your colleagues.

Why? Well, think about it from your staff’s point of view. Suppose you’re best friends with your curatorial assistant. Your children attend the same school. You see each other at soccer games. Your partners enjoy each other’s company. What’s not to like? Well nothing except for the moment when the board tells you that you need to make staff cuts. The obvious position to lose is the curatorial assistant, but, oh, wait, she’s not just the curatorial assistant. She’s your fellow soccer parent, sharer of red wine, and lover of Orange is the New Black. You’re smart. You see this isn’t going to work. And you see why. And yet, shouldn’t you be able to be friends with whomever you like? Yes, but not in this instance. In accepting a leadership position, you put the organization first, which may mean that friendships take a back seat to workplace harmony.

And what about the difference between friendly and friends or authenticity and TMI? As a leader you need to be your one, true self. You need to be that person for you AND for your staff, but there is a difference between your true self and your self on the Dr. Phil show. Understand the boundaries. Use your life as a metaphor sparingly. There is plenty your staff doesn’t want to know and could, in fact, be distressed by knowing. Instead, be true about your feelings rather than your biography.  Model humility. Model the genuine good morning instead of abusing a social convention as you grab coffee and head to your desk. While real friendships can cause workplace boundary issues, inauthentic friendliness sets off warning bells.

Does this make you the lonely leader? Not exactly. But  rather than making friends within your organization, assemble a group of peers from your region. My co-author, Anne Ackerson, refers to these folks as her posse. More honest than your parents, more understanding of your leadership role than your average acquaintance, these are the folks who know you and what you do. They are available when you’ve had one of those days or weeks. They show up with wine and food, but they’re not afraid to tell you that you’ve been a jerk.

So if you haven’t got a posse or you’ve never thought of your colleagues, friends and mentors like that, think about it. If you’re a leader–whether it’s an entire museum or  a department–learn to be friendly, but don’t look for work to replace family and friends. And as always, let us know how you manage this boundary.

Joan Baldwin

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2 Comments on “Friendship and Work: Do They Mix?”

  1. Melissa says:

    One of my biggest challenges since making the transition from educator to director has been developing that ED network/posse. I had a wonderful group of educator colleagues at other museums (in fact, I cofounded the Informal Educators of Dallas County), but it’s very different at the ED level. What I’ve realized is that now my posse is more of a national than local group. Which makes the drinking together regularly thing hard, but makes conferences a lot more fun!

  2. Melissa —

    Don’t overlook the EDs at other nonprofits in your community (or regionally) as possible posse members. At the ED level, you’re all dealing with many of the same or similar issues: board engagement, fundraising, delivering on the mission.

    My posse spans a several-county area. We meet face-to-face a couple times a year. Google Hangout is handy, too.

    Anne


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