What Should Leaders Know About Friendships At Work? – Forbes
Work is better when we get along with our colleagues
Can you be properly friends with someone you work with? Some say yes, others say no. Yet there’s plenty of research to suggest that, generally speaking, we highly value workplace friendships and having these friendships positively impacts how we approach our jobs. This is particularly relevant in light of the burnout epidemic we are currently experiencing and the fact that today is International Friendship Day.
A study of employees by U.K-based team-building company Wildgoose found that more than half (57%) of workers say that having a work best friend makes their work more enjoyable, while 22% argue that it makes them as, or more, productive. What’s more, it seems that many workers who don’t have strong relationships in the workplace may be struggling with loneliness since 15% of those who don’t have a work best friend would ideally like one.
Friendship is critical to business
“All of us appreciate having good friends in our lives,” says Nic Marks, a happiness expert, statistician and the CEO of Friday Pulse, developer of the Friday One Happiness Test. “It’s good to have people whom we care about and who care for us. Why should work be any different, especially when we consider how relational the world of work is?”
As Marks explains: “We have thick, core relationships with our team mates, as well as thinner, more peripheral ones with other colleagues, customers, and suppliers. The quality of these relationships not only affects our own experience of work – work is indisputably better when we get along with people – it is also business critical.”
But workplace friendships remain a controversial topic for a number of reasons, not least because they are associated with the formation of cliques. Friendships can also potentially undermine the effectiveness of teams.
Teamship above friendship
“Some of the worst-performing teams I know are great friends but they can’t get anything done,” says Pam Hamilton, a collaboration expert and author of Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools of Great Teamwork. “Collective intelligence research tells us that teams who avoid constructive conflict in favor of consensus make fewer successful decisions because they don’t challenge each other enough.”
Hamilton believes that while it’s easy to assume that friendship is “the first step towards teamship”, it’s really the other way round. “We come to work to achieve something, whether that’s to launch a new product or to serve our customers. Putting friendship before teamship means we might launch an inferior product because we didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or forget to serve our customers because we’re too busy having a good time.”
Should bosses be friends with their staff?
Workplace friendships can be particularly controversial when they cross hierarchical lines. This is because managers may be perceived as giving preferential treatment to line reports whom they’re on friendlier terms with.
“The traditional answer to whether bosses can be close friends with their staff is no,” says Paul Hargreaves, a B-Corp ambassador, speaker and author of The Fourth Bottom Line: Flourishing in the new era of compassionate leadership. “Some may argue that friendships at work make it difficult to address issues of performance management. Others might think that work and pleasure don’t mix. And still others say that bosses should keep their private life private and not let their people see their whole self.”
Hargreaves himself disagrees with this view. “For far too long we have run our businesses with leaders leading in a rather distant, mechanistic, command-and-control mode, which no longer works. Far better for businesses to be full of people, including bosses, being their real selves, focused around a strong purpose and having fun while achieving their goals. Within this healthy environment, friendships at all levels will inevitably happen.”
The rise of remote friendships
Of course, one of the obstacles to workplace friendship today is the fact that so many employees are now working remotely, with hybrid working set to be a permanent feature of the workplace going forward.
“It falls to company leaders and managers to ensure the culture promotes camaraderie. Culture is a living thing and to engage a remote workforce, you really want to be proactive about shaping it,” says Chris Dyer, founder and CEO of software company PeopleG2 and co-author of Remote Work: Redesign Processes, Practices and Strategies to Engage a Remote Workforce.
Dyer suggests that leaders can promote camaraderie by recognizing employees, in team meetings, for collaborative success. “Friendship and friendly culture don’t depend on proximity, but on deliberate cultural leadership,” he explains.
Organizational policies and processes can play a role in fostering workplace friendships, just as they help to support other workplace-related activities. “Relationships will need to be frequently established with new colleagues,” notes Stephen Wyatt, author of Management and Leadership in the 4th Industrial Revolution.“This will require supportive HR systems, such as designated ‘buddies’, and conducive physical environments for the times when workers are actually at work.”
He continues: “Once established, social media and structured support provided by the organization will help to maintain relationships. The frequent need for upskilling provides another avenue for relationships to develop – within the learning cohorts and curated through mentoring and knowledge-sharing.”
A final thought on friendship
Regardless of whether leaders promote, or frown upon, workplace friendships, they will continue to exist. Humans are hardwired to form close connections with others and we are likely to form especially strong bonds with those we have something in common with. Inevitably, we are likely to find many of those people at work.
I am a business and finance journalist who writes about a wide range of topics from artificial intelligence, careers and diversity through to banking, treasury and wealth
I am a business and finance journalist who writes about a wide range of topics from artificial intelligence, careers and diversity through to banking, treasury and wealth management. I have edited several business magazines and I am currently editor of ‘Edge’, the official journal of the Institute of Leadership & Management in the UK. My first book, ‘Reach the Top in Finance: The Ambitious Accountant’s Guide to Career Success’ (Bloomsbury), was published in 2017. It features interviews with some of the world’s most successful CFOs and senior partners within the large international accountancy firms. I have a degree in modern history from the University of Oxford.