Workplace Friendships

Workplace Friendships

For decades we’ve known that workplace friendships have a lot of positive benefits. Think about Gallup, who has been measuring employee engagement with the same 12 questions since the 1990s. Question number 10 on their Q12 survey is “I have a best friend at work.” This question directly addresses friendship at work, but I’ve heard feedback from several business leaders that this seems “fluffy.” Does having a best friend at work really drive business outcomes? Thanks to a growing body of research we now know the answer to that question: Usually not.

Julianna Pillemer and Nancy P. Rothbard, from the Wharton School of Management, recently published an article titled “Friends Without Benefits: Understanding the Dark Sides of Workplace Friendship.” They have found that close friendships at work are often beneficial for individuals, but can negatively impact group and organizational outcomes. They also found that the individuals in the friendship are usually in a bubble and are not aware of the negative impacts their friendship has on others. Pillemer and Rothbard conclude that friendship at work isn’t necessarily bad, but it does present complex challenges that, if left unchecked, can seriously deteriorate the fabric of a high-performance culture.

Why are workplace friendships complicated? The authors point out that the key features defining roles in friendship conflict with the features that define other workplace relationships. They focus on four features:

Friendships Organizational Relationships

Friendships tend to be more casual and loosely structured


Work relationships tend to be more structurel

You get to choose who you’re friends with
Generally, most of us do not get to pick our co-workers
Communal Norms
Friends help each other out when they need it
Exchange Norms
Work relationships tend to be dictated by a transactional exchange of tasks or information
Soco-Emotional Goals
Friends seek to strengthen their relationship and support each other
Instrumental Goals
Work relationships focus on getting stuff done

Here are a few specific examples of workplace complications when the lines between roles are blurred.

Difficult to Make Decisions

Researchers observed that in interactions between friends, as compared to other work relationships, there was hesitation to express dissent and ask challenging questions. When faced with making a difficult decision, there was less preparation and deliberation among friends.

Formation of Cliques

People tend to interact more frequently with those who they perceive as similar to themselves. This creates patterns of communication which inhibits the sharing of knowledge. Researchers observed this effect was amplified when friendships occurred at the top levels of leadership and resulted in a reduced flow of communication across the entire organization. Another outcome is the development of an insider/outsider dynamic. People who feel they have been excluded may exhibit unproductive defensive behaviors or become disengaged.

Perception of Favoritism

When a friendship develops between a leader and subordinate other employees often perceive a lack of fairness. There is a consistent tendency to believe a co-worker who is friends with their leader receives special treatment and is not held accountable to the same standard as their peers.

Does this mean you need to rush out and break up with your best friend at work? Thankfully, no! There are ways to keep those meaningful relationships in place and minimize the negative impacts. First, gain more awareness. A great place to start is by looking is at yourself. Examine your own friendships and seek evidence of some of the unintended consequences mentioned above. Here are a few other tips:

  • Talk with your work friend and agree on expectations for each other. Use the four features of each role as a framework for understanding the choices in front of you. When do you prioritize socio-emotional goals? When do you prioritize instrumental goals?
  • Make an effort to include others you do not regularly interact with.
  • Be aware of how your friendship appears to others and drive consistent accountability by adhering to processes and procedures.

Another great way to develop your awareness is through your culture data. The behaviors and perceptions mentioned throughout this article can be measured across various segments of your organization. Depending on what you observe, you may consider developing policies or interventions for issues that arise.

I loved this study because it helps illustrates the distinction between employee engagement and culture. Keep employees happy might be good for retention but it does not necessarily drive performance. By gaining awareness and acting with intention, you can create and maintain a culture that incorporates all the benefits of friendship and still achieves outstanding results.


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