Think Being Close With Your Employees Will Motivate Them to Go Above and Beyond? Think Again.

Having a great personal relationship with your employees doesn't always equal a great working relationship.

learn more about Joel B. Carnevale

By Joel B. Carnevale

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As organizations look to remain relevant and innovative, finding ways to get employees to voice their opinions, novel ideas, and even critical suggestions for improving the work environment is becoming increasingly necessary.

Conventional wisdom suggests that one of the best ways to get your employees to speak up with their suggestions and concerns is to build a sense of mutual trust, respect, and confidence. In other words, you should foster a close relationship with your employees. And in some respects, this is true. For example, in my own research, my colleagues and I have found that one of the best ways leaders can get their employees to become more creative, innovative, and willing to speak up their best ideas is by developing a high-quality relationship with them.

Related: 5 Ways to Strengthen Your Bond With Your Team

But leaders should also be aware that there may be limits to the benefits of building a strong work relationship with their employees. In a recent study, which my colleagues and I published in Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, we found that leaders who foster too close of a relationship with their employees may actually be discouraging these members from actively contributing to the success of the company by expressing their innovative ideas and suggestions.

Here are three tips for ensuring the relationship you have with employees is helping, rather than hindering, their productivity.

1. Keep your friends close, but your employees…well, less close

One reason why a good relationship with your employees can increase their willingness to go above and beyond for your organization is that it can provide them the skills and support needed to take initiative and advocate for change in the environment. Oftentimes, employees who have a close work relationship with their leader enjoy certain privileges not available to other members of the work environment, such as increased flexibility for how to do their work, access to valued information, or additional training. As research suggests, such privileges can help these trusted employees mature and grow in their role and feel better equipped to speak up their ideas and be an overall champion for constructive change and growth in the company.

But before you go and join your employees for happy hour, you may want to consider the possible downsides of strong leader-employee relationships. Specifically, our results suggest that as the relationship between leaders and their employees reaches very high levels, employees may begin to prioritize their relationship with their leader over that of their responsibility to the organization. In other words, employees may begin focusing on maintaining their high-quality relationship and devote less attention to conceptualizing and communicating ideas that can help the company.

2. Be explicit about your expectations

Although too close of a relationship with your employees can dissuade them from contributing to the organization's success, there are steps you can take to ensure you're getting the most out of these members. A good place to start is by clearly communicating your expectations. Part of the reason why employees may refrain from voicing their ideas and concerns to a leader with whom they share a strong relationship is that they may worry about jeopardizing the relationship by bothering or overwhelming the leader. So one way you can ensure that these employees continue to speak up is by simply letting them know that you value and want to hear what they have to say. As our results suggest, no matter how strong a leader's relationship with their employees might be, employees will still be willing to offer their innovative thoughts and suggestions if the leader explicitly requests that they share their ideas and concerns.

Related: 12 Tips for Fostering Teamwork

3. Beware of the bystander effect

Typically, when employees see other members of the work environment voicing their ideas, they are more willing to speak up as well because they feel it is safe to express their thoughts and suggestions. But while the presence of others speaking up may signal a psychologically safe environment, it may also generate bystander effects that discourage your closest employees from speaking up. For example, our results suggest that when others are voicing their ideas in the work environment, those employees with whom the leader shares a close relationship may find it easier to diffuse their responsibility to speak up and instead focus on their leader's needs. To combat such bystander effects, be sure to inform employees, especially those with whom you're particularly close, that your needs and the needs of the organization are aligned.

Related: 6 Assumptions That Can Kill Your Relationship With Your Employees

Establishing a good relationship with employees can be a great way to foster their creativity and willingness to speak up if you can avoid the pitfalls. Incorporating the suggestions offered here can help ensure you get the most out of these relationships.

Joel B. Carnevale

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Assistant Professor of Management at Syracuse University

Joel Carnevale is an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. His research focuses on employee ethicality, prosocial behavior and the dark-side of leader personality.

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