Words by Francis Kahihu
The author is an Organizational Development Practitioner
When they get too far removed from the staff, they are said to be aloof yet when they get too close, staff express reservations with regard to respecting personal space. Just how personal should a boss get for staff to feel comfortable? What is the generally acceptable space between a staff and the boss so that the relationship progresses professionally with both parties feeling at peace with each other and not affecting the respect that ought to exist between the two offices?
Consider the experience of Katana, a Program Officer at an international organisation. One day, as he reported to work, he found a mail from his boss wishing him a happy birthday. This was a shocker. How had the boss known that he was about to celebrate his birthday that week? He was taken aback since his relationship with the said boss had been flat with the two only exchanging a greeting whenever they met along the corridor.
On the actual birthday, Katana was surprised to get a card and a flower from the boss wishing him a well-deserved 29th birthday. This tore him apart. What was happening? Was the world falling apart? Something must have been wrong. This closeness made him uncomfortable. As far as Katana was concerned, the boss had no business wishing him a happy birthday. He imagined that the boss ought not to have even known when his birthday was since a birthday is a personal affair that junior staff should celebrate with their fellow juniors.
As the workplace culture moves from personnel management to people resource management, bosses are getting more and more aware of the need to bring down several of the imaginary walls that exist between them and the staff they supervise. Bosses realise the need to treat staff as people first and then as workers for efficient and effective productivity. With this, supervisors increasingly want to get involved in certain components of the personal lives of their juniors knowing so well that instability at the personal level could well lead to reduced productivity.
The challenge however has been the management of this closing-in by the managers. It seems like the managers are having secret tips by workplace professionals on how to improve the culture at work that make them unleash surprise closeness to the rest of the staff. With this trend, there seems to be some disquiet as the rest of the staff wonder what could be happening. Staff realize that the bosses are getting closer every day and this makes them imagine the bosses are playing some tricks on them.
Some of the managers break the walls as a way of building teams and enhancing closer interactions within their departments. This process should however be well communicated. The staff should know that the management is seeking to improve on workplace relations and wishes to enhance more effective teamwork among the staff, and especially between the staff and managers. With this clarity, staff would feel comfortable when they find their bosses drawing closer and getting more concerned about the staff personal welfare than before.
This change of culture should however be managed within the limits of professional ethics to mitigate against unexpected consequences. It could be that some of the bosses may want to get too close at the pretext of wanting to be better teammates while some employees may want to get too close to the boss so as to attempt to manipulate. Regardless of the culture change prescription, the workplace must ensure it respects individual personal spaces in line with the acceptable cultures and values of staff and operating environment.