If you Google “how to ask personal questions at work”, the results are fascinating — and divisive.
For every how-to guide for getting to know, and trusting in, your colleagues, there’s another two on how to avoid “nosy” teammates and “dodge” personal questions in the office.
So which should we be paying attention to?
Can a colleague actually be a friend — even if you’re their “boss”? Or should a working relationship start and end with professionalism — especially across seniority?
At Duuoo, we think managers should seek a balance.
That it’s not either/or, but both/and.
The mark of a great manager — caring and communicative
I’d like to tell you a story about the best manager I’ve ever worked with.
Not only did he tick all the boxes for his job description — great communicator, empowering to work with, an engaged coach and mentor — but he was also my friend. Work trips were more fun, I trusted and valued his feedback, and I pushed myself further under his wing than I did any of the other managers I knew.
By setting the groundwork for a successful manager-junior relationship, he also set the scene for a long-lasting friendship — or it might have been the other way around, I can’t say for sure.
Why? Because there are so many shared characteristics between what makes a great manager and what makes a great friend. When you get the balance right, the two roles feed synchronously into each other, creating far more than just a buzzing social scene in the office — although that is an added benefit, too.
But don’t just take it from me.
In a Gallup Organization study of 80,000 managers, the results were clear:
“While there are as many styles of management as there are managers, there is one quality that sets truly great managers apart from the rest: They discover what is unique about each person and then capitalize on it.”
Working for this manager, I felt truly seen. Not just as an employee with skills to be developed, but as a person who deserved to make the most of what they have — and to push for achievements they could reach, if they wanted to.
And that wouldn’t have happened had we not connected on a personal level, as well as a professional one.
Had he not made the effort to get to know me — beyond my job title — he wouldn’t have known what I thought success looked like. He wouldn’t have been able to motivate me half as much.
Because nurturing personal relationships with your colleagues pays off in more than a few ways:
- Through mutual trust and authenticity, companionable colleagues feel psychologically safe. And this sense of security is essential for team dynamics, performance, and development — whether you’re working 1-on-1 or as a group. In fact, after a two-year internal study, Google concluded that their highest performing teams all exhibited psychological safety, above other shared traits.
- This finding is echoed in the academic world too, where a 1997 experiment from Interpersonal Relationships Lab at Stony Brook University found that skipping “small talk” and settling into self-disclosure increases collaboration potential. Similarly, research from MIT argues that a “relational approach” is the most effective way of on-boarding new hires — helping managers get more from their teams, early in their tenure.
- At the center of all this is communication. Relationships — whether professional or personal — are built on the freedom to speak openly and honestly. So much so that organizations who promote effective communication are 4.5x more likely to retain their best employees. And, according to Kenexa Research, 50% of positive change in workplace communication patterns can be accredited to social interaction outside of working hours — and that’s hardly surprising when 82% of Americans now have friends at work.
But there is a balance to be sought, as I mentioned before.
There is such a thing as being too friendly as a manager. And if you’re trying to forge personal connections with your colleagues in the hope that this’ll make them work harder for you, and be more dedicated to your team, then you’re coming at it from all the wrong angles.
When managers allow the lines to blur too much between supervisor and sidekick, this can have costly ramifications. Loss of respect, perception of favoritism, wishy-washy feedback, and declining team performance have all been cited as signs of a manager who tries too hard to be friends.
Need we even mention the infamous David Brent from the UK version of The Office? In the character’s own words, “I suppose I’ve created an atmosphere where I’m a friend first and a boss second. Probably an entertainer third”.
And how did that work out? Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well.
The reason this satirical representation of a manager made us all cringe and squirm so universally, is that these managers do exist. And, in fact, sometimes finding the balance is harder than we imagine.
So how can managers find that sweet spot between connecting on a meaningful level with their direct reports, and maintaining the professionalism that Brent so clearly failed to achieve?
It all comes down to respect.
Manager-employee relationships, like friendships, are built on mutual respect — that’s what you’re aiming for
I’m going to go back to my story now, to draw on a real-life example of a potentially uncomfortable conversation I had with the manager I’ve been praising so far.
While I had (and still have!) utmost respect for this manager and friend, I didn’t always toe the line of appropriate professionalism during work hours.
I always meant well when I’d crack a joke at his expense over lunch time, or undermine his authority among peers in a tongue-in-cheek way. And while I thought this was fair game in our group dynamic, he saw different. So when he sat me down, friend-to-friend and colleague-to-colleague, to tell me it made him uncomfortable, I felt bad.
I was also a little confused, as his comments took me by surprise. But respecting him as I did, I changed my behavior immediately. In the same way you’d respond to a friend’s hurt feelings, I responded to his needs as he communicated them to me.
Of course, I also responded to his openness and trust — he respected me enough to have the conversation in the first place!
And therein lies the very special nature of manager-employee conversations — especially those that happen on a 1-to-1 basis. For communication to flow freely — as we need it to, for company performance and talent retention — both parties at the table need to feel able to speak to their mind.
We know this about feedback: it takes courage to give and receive.
But when the foundations of friendship are there to fall back on, it tends to be much easier to speak the truth — after all, you’ve developed a trust, authenticity and open dialogue with the other person already.
This empowers the “junior” to open up about their successes and challenges in the organization, and allows the “senior” to provide real, valuable insight to help them move forward. Both roles get more from the conversation, when they can be themselves — respecting the other’s input, and trusting that they’ll take anything that’s said in the spirit intended.
Often an exception to this rule, however, is when you’ve been friends first and a manager later. That’s a very interesting dynamic — and a topic to touch on another time.
For now, let’s focus on another major consideration for inter-colleague respect: boundaries.
The importance of respecting boundaries (and knowing when not to get personal)
Sometimes 1-on-1 conversations are about sharing happy news: maybe there’s a promotion to celebrate, or a job-well-done to discuss.
No-one sees these meetings in their calendar and frets.
But not all 1-on-1s go like this. On occasion, the topic will be far less appealing.
We’ve touched on the fear of feedback already, but there may also be times where what’s bubbling below the surface is so sensitive that fear becomes dread.
With the rise of working from home, for example, our personal and professional lives are now entangled more than ever before. What’s resulting in a disruption at work, may have nothing to do with the 9 to 5 at all — how does a manager have a conversation to get to the bottom of this?
Will a strictly professional tone be most appropriate? Or does your colleague need a friendly figure to talk to?
The truth is, it depends.
Yes, there will be some instances where not asking personal questions is the right route to take — there are plenty of ways to troubleshoot, keeping it work-related as you know. And different colleagues will have different boundaries, adding to the complexity.
Here, your Emotional Intelligence and social radar should lead the way. You’ll need to learn to read the individuals in the room — both in team discussions, and when you’re chatting 1-on-1. And if you’ve established a personal connection with your team members first, you’ll find these tricky times far easier to navigate overall.
One thing’s for sure though, you should never shy away from 1-on-1 conversations completely — even in the most difficult of situations. According to McKinsey, 63% of employees find “attention from the leader” as extremely or very effective for motivation — so if you try to ignore that colleague who’s gone quiet, or whose engagement has dropped off of late, you may end up losing them from the team altogether.
As a rule of thumb, a manager should only spend 20% of a 1-on-1 speaking anyway. So put that meeting in without delay, and follow the social cues provided for you by the other person.
A private conversation, that’s professional and personal in appropriate measure
At Duuoo, our policy is to blend professionalism and personal bonds — for the overall good of the company. Because not only does that human connection help foster engagement, collaboration and team morale, but it reaps benefits commercially, too.
It’s about respect, trust, openness, and Emotional Intelligence; using these to find the right balance. And that balance is often hard to get right.
That’s why we’ve developed our Smart Talking Points feature. Designed to inspire meaningful conversations, these friendly tips help managers reach out on a more personal level in 1-on-1s — while still achieving the professional purpose, as planned.
At the end of the day, we can’t fast-track you to Emotional Intelligence or an open culture. Nor would we tell you how to manage your team.
But with Duuoo taking on some of your more manual responsibilities — collating individual feedback, tracking continuous performance, suggested topics of conversation, etc. — we can free up more of your time to focus on what really matters: finding a balance that works.