The nuanced nature of work friendships

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I’ve written before about the power of friends at work, as well as the power of gratitude at work, but now we’re going to get a little more nuanced. There’s a good long interview with two Wharton researchers on “Managing the Dark Side of Workplace Friendships.” A lot of good stuff in there, with the general idea being that:

There are complexities and tensions that arise because of a number of features of organizational life which make friendship more difficult to navigate in the workplace.

Let’s take this on the two main axises that people tend to encounter the “friendship at work” discussion around.

Manager to employee

Most managers are legitimately terrified of being seen as friends with their direct reports. It gives them heartburn.

I have different opinions on this, but I understand not wanting to be seen as BFF with someone who reports to you. That said, I think the working world would be a better place if managers used elements of friendship in their relationships with subordinates, just not “tried and true conventional friendship.” By that I mean:

  • Respect them
  • Listen to them
  • Trust them unless/until they fuck up a lot
  • Understand they have lives and commitments aside from the ones to you

You’d do all these things with a friend, right? Well, managers should do all these things with employees. We know from decades of research that they don’t, of course — 60% of managers even claim they “don’t have the time” to respect their direct reports. Is respect something that needs to be scheduled in Outlook? I didn’t think so.

Employee to employee

This one is really tough. Let’s list all the different shit going on here:

  • You spend 10–12 hours/day at work
  • You’re going to need to develop relationships
  • Pretty much every person in human history, even those who work for themselves, have “work friends” of some sort, somewhere in their career
  • OK, but now we’re talking about …
  • … different age ranges/generations
  • … different genders
  • … different relationship statuses
  • … differing family statuses
  • … connection to work is all over the map
  • … and meanwhile every manager wants to be “cross-functional” and “collaborative”

Where you net out is this: you might have a 61 year-old on a project with a 26 year-old. The 26 year-old may be romantically interested in a 34 year-old who’s recently divorced, and meanwhile the PM here (“the strategic account manager”) is 47 with three kids in private school and a mortgage that’s underwater.

All these people must collaborate because that’s how we do in white-collar work these days, even if it’s often forced. Some relationships will be built. Some might become friendships. It’s going to happen.

But do you see some of the problems?

Everyone’s really different. On some issues, stuff is going to blow up. But now you’re “friendly,” so that needs to be managed.

Or, flip side: you get to a place where you’re too close from project work and feel you can’t challenge anyone or they’ll get mad at you. Now crappy ideas can get through all too easily.

Third scenario: the connection/community you crave overwhelms your ability to actually make good decisions and be productive.

See how having friends at work is important, but also a bit nuanced and fraught? Indeed.

What can we do?

This happens largely at an individual level. You just need to find the best path through for yourself. Define and navigate your own relationships.

It can’t really happen at an org level because, well, at an org level any project like this (“Defining Friendships”) is gonna get kicked to HR. What happens there? It dies a slow, painful death in process, PowerPoints, and spreadsheets no executive would ever remotely look at. Whenever it comes up at a meeting, something else — usually tied to revenue — is more important and replaces it as a topic.

That’s why these topics never get off the deck at an org level. They go to the graveyard of innovation, HR. The department that’s neither “human” nor truly concerned with business “resources.”

So, your best path through is individual focus:

  • Who do you want in your life?
  • How comfortable are you with them being close?
  • Oh God, should you add them on social media? (Another whole topic)
  • Can you push back on them if need be?
  • Remembering that work is largely about control, can you fit these people as “friends” into that context?

Just think on it. Work it yourself. Because the org might have a program about connection, mentoring, friendship, whatever … but chances are it’s warmed-over HR BS. You need to set your own boundaries around friends and acquaintances and connection back to work.

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