Workplace Friendships

We have all heard stories of politics destroying friendships and even families in extreme cases. Over time, coworkers can also evolve from plain acquaintances to true friends. Friends are generally considered to be one of the greatest assets in most people’s lives. In business, however, friendships can be both a blessing and a curse and they can also frequently introduce immense deficiencies in organizations. People argue that establishing proper boundaries can mitigate some of these issues, but simply put, friendships are fundamentally different relationships from purely professional ones.

But what does it really mean for someone to be a friend? What kind of work environment do friendships foster and how do they affect businesses? Let’s try to answer these questions.

Friendships

A person becomes a friend the moment we let them into our personal lives. The more we let them “see” us, the real us, the more our relationship deepens. As we slowly peel back the layers of our public self, we become emotionally invested in the other person. We build more than rapport, we build a complex relationship, the beginnings of attachment and love. Trust develops and a deep, emotional bond forms.

Relationships are highly ranked. The more we value someone, the higher they are on our list of priorities. In crude logical form, we sell our vulnerabilities in exchange for security. Deep personal connections are the most valuable assets in our lives. Indeed, we will do almost anything for our family and friends. They are top of the line.

Expectations and Reciprocity

Undoubtedly, all friendships come with expectations. The most important ones are:

We are expected to protect our friends from danger, physical or otherwise, no matter what. Even if our friend is wrong, we are to stand up for them and defend them, lest we want to be viewed as a bad friend. In other words, we have their back and take their side.

We are expected to make sacrifices for our friends, sometimes even to the detriment of ourselves and possibly others.

We are expected to reciprocate their behavior toward us, thereby reinforcing our bond.

Which brings us to reciprocity. Like it or not, friendships, like romantic relationships, are not necessarily perfectly mutual. The reality is, the degree of emotional investment in people by people is arbitrary. It is impossible to tell how balanced a relationship truly is. Equating things artificially just because it “feels” right, doesn’t make it any more real. This phenomenon can also be viewed as one of our unrealistic expectations.

Friends at Work

Networking by itself is invaluable. The more people you know on a professional level, the vaster your pool of opportunity becomes. On the flip side, nepotism and “being in bed with the right people (sometimes literally)” is rarely beneficial or healthy to an organization in the long run. When promotions are primarily personal and not merit-based, we are often met with incompetence and overall poor leadership. Friends and family do not automatically qualify for positions at your place of work. Managers and leaders should strive to minimize bias and remain objective in their decision making. Friendships, sadly, often get in the way of that and cloud their judgement.

Should we then all be stoic robots at our workplace? Absolutely not. Some of the best startups and teams were founded by groups of friends. The best products get built by teams who are close, get drinks after work, and otherwise hang out outside working hours. Companies can feel like families exactly because of the personal synergies and high levels of trust. So am I contradicting myself here? Not exactly.

I am merely cautioning that personal and professional lives are not interchangeable. If you and your friend are perfectly aligned professionally and you can easily resolve conflict between you, then consider yourselves lucky and by all means work together. Unequivocally, it is the job of management to build teams that are professionally aligned. Teams that also form lasting friendships are huge morale boosters. However, if at any moment misalignment creeps in, friendships can quickly devolve into competing factions, and toxicity ensues. At that point, the possibility of ruin goes up, friendships end, and hearts break. Friendship at work is tricky business and requires special attention at all times.