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The Mixed Blessing of Work Friends

Our social networks are critical for success. We are embedded in webs of relationships that provide access to information, feedback, advice, emotional support, mentoring, and trust, which translate into enhanced health, performance, creativity, reputation, power, and increased rates of pay raises and promotions.

Over the past several years, I have been studying the effects of workplace friendships—those that superimpose friendship with work-focused interactions—on employees’ job performance. Past research has shown that 30% of employees report having a best friend at work, and many employees describe their coworkers as both colleagues and friends. In turn, employees who report having friends at work have higher levels of productivity, retention, and job satisfaction, and are seven times more likely to be engaged in their work than their “friendless” counterparts.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in our 2016 study published in Personnel Psychology, we too found that employees who reported a greater number of friends at work experienced feelings of aliveness, vitality, positive emotions, trust, and a sense of positive energy, which resulted in higher performance evaluations from their supervisors. However, we also found that these friendships are a mixed blessing. Employees reported several drawbacks, including feeling distracted and drained from the amount of effort that strong, positive relationships require. Most interestingly, employees reported feeling torn in different directions about how to behave toward their work friends—the potentially conflicting expectations of “friend” and “coworker” roles can result in incompatible goals, competition, and misunderstandings. Ultimately, while we concluded that workplace friendships are largely beneficial for the performance of both individuals and organizations, they can also be awkward and difficult to manage.

So, how can we effectively navigate these friendships to maximize their benefits and boost our performance, while minimizing their pitfalls?

  1. Be rational. It sounds harsh, but remember that you are coworkers first, and friends second. I always get asked, “Are work friends real friends?” They may feel that way, and they can be invaluable sources of intimacy and support. But, oftentimes, if your friend leaves the company for another job, that relationship will be less convenient to manage, and the two of you will drift apart; it’s the shared work environment that sustains the friendship. These friendships are also uniquely susceptible to betrayal (for example, your friend decides to put their career first by vying for the same promotion as you, or discloses personal information about you to a boss). Be careful not to put yourself in a position where you’re compromising your career or other professional relationships by privileging the friendship.

  2. Be fair. Work friends face unique tensions compared to those outside of work. For example, you may have the opportunity to put your friend at an advantage in the company (say, by giving them preferred shifts, or sharing privileged information). But, organizational practices are guided by equitable treatment, so the personal relationship should be removed from decision-making and evaluation.

  3. Be honest. Close friends expect honesty, and this is key when providing feedback about their work performance. Be straightforward with your friends about your interpretation and evaluation of their behavior or performance. Sweeping unethical behavior or poor performance under the rug to protect a friend’s feelings will only lead to greater challenges down the road. Unfortunately, friends (as with spouses) often find this type of honesty difficult—as people become closer, they tend to communicate less well. This illusion of transparency causes us to overestimate how well others understand our feelings or attitudes, which leads to misunderstandings.

So, long story short, treat your relationships at work as you do other work characteristics—manage them strategically to boost the effectiveness of both your friendship, and your career success.

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