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There’s a Difference Between a Boss and a Friend

5 minute read

A few years ago I was talking to a co-worker about her job dissatisfaction. She had specific complaints about our office, though she liked the people she worked with. During the conversation she remarked, almost offhandedly, “You are one of my best friends.” And as soon as she said it, I panicked just a little bit. This woman was a joy to work with. She was funny and smart, and we were simpatico in nearly every way. We got along well and laughed constantly. We were, in short, great work friends.

But we could not be friend friends, because I was her boss. Meaning our relationship quite possibly could end badly. She could quit unexpectedly, and hers were big shoes to fill. Or I could fire her for any number of reasons, not all of them within my control. Real friends treat each other better than that. But work friends can do all kinds of terrible things to each other, because, as Michael Corleone famously explained, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

I thought of this co-worker recently when I saw the results of a new Gallup poll that revealed millennials want a “holistic relationship” with their managers. They want the boss to express interest in their lives outside the office—or, as the Wall Street Journal put it, to ask about their weekends. Which will apparently make them like their jobs more.

Please, Gallup, make it stop. I am trying so hard to evolve, but every time I hear something like this I want to get in a time machine and go back to the days when making millennials feel fulfilled was not my responsibility. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t believe you can group-hug your way to success in a global economy. I thought we all went to work to … work. Whether you’re cleaning teeth or writing code or laying tile or curing cancer, it’s a job–and it’s your job to do it well. If you don’t, you might get fired, unless you are smart enough (or dumb enough, depending on the severance situation) to quit first.

It’s not that bosses don’t care what their employees (even those ages 19 to 35) do over the weekend. If your boss is a good one—meaning smart and kind—she definitely wants you to have a rich, fulfilling personal life. Partly because she is a nice person, and partly because that will help make you a happy, successful employee. Which will make you better at your job, which will help the whole organization, starting with her. (Note to millennials: many bosses think it’s all about them, not you.) If your boss asks about your weekend, it may just be that she is polite and that’s what polite people do on Monday. Or she may want to understand you better, because personal details can be telling. I once hired a woman in part because when she revealed that she had been a dancer, my mischievous executive editor asked her to perform a dance move during the interview and she actually did. (Which showed me this job candidate was good-natured, honest and fast on her feet—literally.) So be selective and strategic about what your weekend reveals. “I went kayaking/to a museum/to the movies with my grandmother” is excellent. “I binge-watched Archer while drinking Jägermeister from a paper bag,” not so much.

And if she doesn’t inquire about your weekend, or make any chitchat whatsoever, or even dependably act 100% human, that doesn’t mean she is a bad boss or a lousy person. She might simply be so overwhelmed by the demands of her own life that she tries to work as hard and fast as she can before the metaphorical timer goes off at the end of her day. I spent two of my three pregnancies waddling my enormous self into the office of a manager who never once asked me when the baby was due, whether I knew what I was having or how I was feeling. I doubted she cared or even knew that I was pregnant, until it was unambiguously a baby, and not a giant lunch, under my dress. Was my manager tough? Beyond. Was she was a nice person? I still wonder. Was she a good boss? Yes, in many ways. Did she run a successful enterprise? Absolutely. She was All Business, and it worked.

Maybe I am a terrible manager, but the notion that I now need to go around asking everyone about their weekends makes me feel deficient. Deficient, and really tired. So to everyone who works for me: apologies in advance if I don’t ask what you did on Saturday. Really, it’s not that I don’t care. I just don’t think that’s what we came here for.

Van Ogtrop is the editor of Real Simple

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