“THERE IS NOTHING BETTER THAN A FRIEND, UNLESS IT IS A FRIEND WITH CHOCOLATE” Linda Grayson
One of my first speaking engagements as an employment lawyer was at a conference headed “Managing Staff – Do the Right Thing.” During the coffee break, one of the delegates told me that they had learnt a lot from my session. I asked what in particular they had taken away and he said that he had understood how important it was to be friends with the staff he was managing. I replied that I had not said that but had stressed that what was important was for managers to be firm but fair.
As is often the case with rushed conversations during coffee breaks, that is not the whole picture. Successful managers form good relationships with the people they work with. The relationship can be divided into two categories, namely the business relationship and the person to person relationship. However, many managers incorrectly consider that what underpins the person to person relationship is friendliness reinforced by socialising after work or inviting colleagues to share family occasions.
What underpins managerial friendliness?
Ferdinand F. Fournies, an internationally acclaimed business consultant and expert in management and sales techniques, stated in his book “Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed To Do” which regularly topped the New York Times Business Best Seller List in the 1990s, that friendliness means doing the little things that one might think of as politeness and respect. This included saying please and thank you, looking at people directly when you are talking to them, greeting people with a good morning or good afternoon, being prompt in keeping appointments, apologising when one is late, not accepting non related phone calls during meetings and not interrupting people when they are speaking.
Mr Fournies then went on to consider another aspect of friendliness that he described as showing interest or getting to know people. He advised that managers talk to employees about their personal interests and outside work activities, family events and social activities that were appropriate to discuss. He said that these discussions should rarely last more than a few minutes and it was not the length of discussion that was important but the fact that the manager had remembered the event and took the time to mention it. Smiling a lot, being easy to talk to, being polite, thoughtful and considerate of others were important management interventions.
He counselled that friendliness did not replace or correct poor management. It was just that “Managers who intervene effectively in a friendly way are always more effective than managers who intervene effectively in a non-friendly way.”
Is this approach affected by generational differences in the workplace?
Fast forward to the present times to consider whether there have been changes in the workplace and whether such advice is still relevant.
The first group to enter the workforce after the 1990s was the millennials. What millennials seek is a healthy workplace, limitations on technology during working hours and a desire for purpose driven work assignments. An American Express survey identified core millennial values of creativity, autonomy and reciprocity as foundations to the future of business leadership.
Millennials are now being followed into the workplace by Generation Z. Generation Z broadly encompasses those born between 1996 and 2015 and, according to ManpowerGroup, Gen Z will make up 30% of the global workforce by 2030. They have no memory of life before smart phones and mobile apps and are extraordinarily socially aware to the issues of race, equality, climate and gender. Gen Z is tech savvy which means that life revolves around their mobile phones; social media is used to its fullest potential and they expect to work for organisations that prioritise technology. They would expect most of their working day to be sat in front of a computer screen. When faced with an issue that needs solving, Gen Z’s default position is to use Google to find an answer, since they grew up watching You Tube videos to learn how to do anything.
Managers are therefore now expected to provide far more detailed instructions and state very clearly what needs to be accomplished than used to be the case. Starting off a discussion, for example, by asking how the employee’s birthday party went can be viewed as wasting time with the employee thinking, “Let’s just get on with it.” Additionally, during Covid lockdowns, workplace interactions defaulted to either management by emails and texts and/or meetings on Zoom or Teams so the opportunity for friendly social interactions around the water cooler have become virtually non-existent. As it seems to be the case that there is a resistance by the workforce to return to the workplace full time, certainly among those who are office based, the absence of direct engagement will continue.
The impact of social justice, diversity and inclusion
Another development since the 1990s is that Gen Z cares about social justice and prioritises diversity and inclusion. The use of language is seen as important in achieving these aims and so words that might have been acceptable a few years ago are now unacceptable. JK Rowling is cancelled from her Harry Potter industry because she advocates the use of the word “woman” and Greg Clarke had to resign as FA chairman in November 2020 after saying “coloured footballers” rather than “footballers of colour”. It will be understandable for many managers to consider that initiating a friendly conversation with a colleague might not be worth the risk in case a word is used that is no longer viewed as acceptable and causes offence.
A third development is that workplace banter has led to a rise in discrimination claims against employers. If the comments made violated a person’s dignity or created a humiliating or offensive environment, that constitutes bullying and saying that it was “just banter”, “only a joke” or” just a bit of fun” is not a watertight defence. So, managers must be careful when initiating a light-hearted jokey conversation and may decide that the risks are not worth it.
The growth of the MeToo movement has also possibly had unintended consequences in the workplace. A 2021 study found that, in the wake of #MeToo, men in managerial positions expressed a reluctance to engage in one-on-one interactions with female employees and were significantly less likely than women managers to mentor a female subordinate.
It is undoubtedly the case that the advice provided by Mr Fournies in the 1990s is still applicable and that friendliness is an effective management tool. For the reasons set out in this article, implementing that aim has become a lot more difficult.
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