By our very nature, we were created for relationships. Be they personal or professional, we develop and maintain relationships with the people who are a part of the circles or groups to which we belong. While some of these relationships might have emerged consciously/unconsciously over time, they result in meaningful friendships which help us in the best and worst of times. This is no less true of friendships in the workplace.
For this post, I want to look at friendships as a form of relationship in the workplace. Loosely defined, friendships are those close relationships we develop with people on the job, or the people we align ourselves with, due to similarities in personality, values, and interests. Friendships also develop as a result of the huge amount of time we spend at work, or at home doing work. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that, people develop lasting friendships with the members of their teams, people on other teams(internally and externally) and even with their supervisors. Is anything wrong with that? Well… you decide.
Are friendships in the work place bad?
Do friendships help or hinder effective working relationships?
Do they need boundaries?
Can they affect how you do your job?
The answers to any of the above questions are not written down in any employee handbook. Nor are they stated in the thick operational policies and procedures manuals, that each new employee is given to read during the orientation or onboarding process for a new job. Though you should note, that, some companies have explicitly stated policies about personal relationships (intimate) in the workplace. But, that is not my focus. If you were to stop and think about your experiences with friendships at the workplace, the things you have seen, heard or felt, you might just conclude that – friendships do have impact on the work and perhaps how we work.
“Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are”
Throughout the course of my career, I’ve witnessed and experienced first-hand, the impact of friendships at work from the perspective of a member of a team to manager/leader of teams. And, I can safely tell you that, this dynamic plays out quite differently from role to role. So let’s start with the question raised earlier:
- Are friendships in the workplace bad? No, not necessarily. Friends are typically people we trust, and turn to whenever we need a sounding board, support, receive good and bad news. These friends are also the same persons who are likely to call us with a bit of company news (a promotion, new hire or dismissal) or relate over lunch, something they might have heard on the grapevine. Herein lies a problem, for this is how the grapevine thrives. Grapevine communication is a huge problem for many organizations. The grapevine is a medium through which rumors and gossip are transmitted, producing negative effects on company culture and creating tension in teams. Yet, what we often forget or overlook is that, the grapevine is not an abstract concept. It is not something running along the walls and corridors into meetings and offices, restrooms, car parks and cafeterias. One reason for the grapevine’s popularity in organizations, is that, sometimes, friends across and within teams, inappropriately discuss critical work related information and decisions, that they are privy to in their jobs with other friends ( both internally and externally). And though no harm might have been intended in sharing, the effects on the organization and on people’s lives might be detrimental.
- Do friendships they help or hinder effective working relationships? Yes. Friendships can both help and hinder effective working relationships. Whether it’s the case of a friend providing much needed help in completing a work assignment, supporting a proposal or point in a meeting or giving feedback, friendships can be beneficial. Friendships often help to “grease the wheels” for a more comfortable journey in the world of work. On the other hand, friendships might very well threaten effective working relationships. A friendship gone wrong can lead to grievance and discipline issues, produce negative work behaviors and attitudes such as “bad mouthing” of and by managers and direct reports alike. Thereby resulting in, tense meetings, decline in performance and productivity and further disruptions and uncomfortable situations on teams.
- Can they affect how you do your job? Yes, friendships can directly and indirectly affect and effect how you do your job. Favoritism in the workplace and its impact on low employee morale is nothing to scoff at. Additionally, the direct impact can be seen with the answers to questions 1-2 above. The indirect impact might be just as strong. After all, I’m sure you might have seen coworkers in a friendship relationship react negatively to another coworker on the basis of an incident/ or action taken against their friend(s) or involving them.
- Do they need boundaries? Yes. Establishing boundaries for what you will or can share with a friend will be critically important in avoiding any appearance of unprofessionalism, bias or breach of trust. This is especially important and true when a team member is promoted from amongst peers and becomes a supervisor. For both the new supervisor and the direct report(s) (which includes friends), the period of adjustment to this new relationship needs to be managed carefully. If you were to review any book on supervisory management, you would find that, great emphasis is placed on helping new supervisors understand their new roles and responsibilities vis-a-vis old relationships. These books provide guidance to the supervisor on the different expectations related to the new role(that of their direct reports and supervisor) and how to navigate these relationships.
I will therefore conclude that, friendships at the workplace are important and may even be desired. However, friendships need to be carefully managed to prevent them from undermining effective working relationship. For whether we admit it or not, they can and do. Hence, a lot will be left to the maturity, integrity and ethics of the individual and that of his/her friend(s). In the end, responsible and mature people with healthy friendships would never allow each other to jeopardize their job position(s) or compromise their professional ethics.
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