Friendships at Work: Lean In or Lean Out?

By Michele Porterfield

Friendships at work can be tricky business. Yet, we know that meaningful social connections and relationships come just after the basic needs of food and shelter in the hierarchy of needs. Given how much time we spend at the office, it is natural to find ourselves connecting to colleagues in ways that blur the lines. We work through tough times, we celebrate wins, and we use each other as sounding boards to make sense of what is happening around us – just as we do with our friends outside of the office. Even so, navigating the work friendship dynamic effectively is important for all professionals and leaders as a part of building their personal brand and reputation. Being intentional makes all the difference.

Here are some pointers worth considering as you take stock of how you are doing:

Optics Matter: If you are a leader of others, be thoughtful about how your closer relationships at work might be perceived. While your intentions may be pure, how you manage the boundaries of relationships needs to signal to others that they will all be treated fairly regardless of their degree of personal connection to you. If you hire a long-time friend, be sure others see you managing him or her to the same standard. When you go to meetings, avoid sidebar conversations that might signal that one person has the inside track over others. If you socialize with certain colleagues outside of work, avoid debriefing what a good time you had in the company of others. The optics are far more relevant (and visible) than your intentions.

Renegotiate Boundaries As Needed: Over time, the nature of your working relationships at the office will shift. You may become the boss of a dear long-time friend (or the reverse), which is often the stickiest of all. Depending on the person and the nature of your history together, it may be necessary to have an overt conversation about what has changed and how you will both navigate moving forward. If you become the boss of a peer, going on vacations together or attending BBQs at each other’s houses may no longer be appropriate. Recalibrating between the two of you will take a level of honesty and professional respect on both sides, and as the new boss you will likely need to take the first step. While potentially awkward, acknowledging the new reality in an honest and authentic way will help both of you manage your professional brand.

Manage Information Wisely: As a leader, you are often entrusted with information that requires you to exhibit discretion, judgement, and a high degree of interpersonally savvy. You may learn sensitive information about others, you are privy to information before your team, and you may be exposed to important people’s opinions about key issues impacting the business. You will have your own opinions and feelings about what you hear, and naturally want to talk things out with others you trust at work. Before immediately discussing things with your close colleague in a closed-door meeting, remember that restraint is essential. Putting your own personal needs ahead of organizational expectations regarding confidentiality can often backfire and ruin the reputation you worked so hard to build. Consider who you share what with and when, or whether you share anything at all.

The Leader Sets The Tone: In particular if you are a leader over others in an organization, remember that by virtue of your role everyone is looking to you for clues and cues about what success looks like and how to “get it right”. Whether it is how to dress, how to talk, or how to manage relationships at the office, if you don’t demonstrate proper boundary management, don’t expect that they will either. If you “overshare” with one person, expect them to interpret that such behavior is condoned, and they will likely do the same. If you speak poorly about someone to a trusted friend at the office, expect that such behavior will be interpreted as appropriate for everyone. Before you know it, the culture has morphed to an unhealthy place where gossip is the norm and professionalism takes a nosedive.

Personal relationships at work are natural and essential for keeping us motivated, engaged, and feeling connected at the most basic human level. Yet, like all meaningful relationships in our personal lives, work friendships will have their ups and downs and twists and turns. The important thing to remember is that such relationships exist within a unique organizational context that must be taken into careful consideration. Reminding ourselves about fundamental concepts such as intentionality, honesty, and mutual respect can help guide the way.

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