Friendships in the Workplace: positive and bad

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It is widely accepted that it is a positive idea to have friendships in the workplace. Typically, workers with strong working relationships work together well and are more effective. This makes managers happier and is normally good for productivity in the workplace. But when, maybe, do workplace friendships go too far and change the office’s dynamics? Recent research by Rachel L. Morrison and Terry Nolan, Lecturers in Management, Faculty of Business, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand, shows that these forms of partnerships may also have adverse consequences at both personal and corporate levels, in addition to the advantageous implications of occupational friendships. To begin, we need a good definition of what constitutes a friend within the context of the workplace. Morrison and Nolan (2007), define it this way; “an organizational peer that an individual feels they would be friends with even if they didn’t work together.” With this definition in mind, we must examine what makes friendships at work function. In general, “Proximity and similarity are two of the most salient aspects of interpersonal attraction and friendship formation” (Morrison & Nolan, 2007). Within the modern work setting, proximity is very hard to avoid, especially because many organizations now employ an open floorplan concept of office construction which naturally promotes interaction and proximity to those with which one works.

Where the trouble often occurs with workplace friendships is when the role boundaries are crossed in some way. The line between friend and colleague often requires a person to separate out the two roles to be able to function. Some people are likely to handle this distinction with little or no problem while others have great difficulty separating work roles from friendships. This is where the conflict occurs. In a normal friendship, reciprocity is an important aspect, however, utilitarian support (or help that is expected as part of the job) may sometimes create “feelings of indebtedness, exploitation, or suspicion of another’s motives, thereby undermining the friendship” (Morrison & Nolan, 2007). Another way in which friendships can get in the way of office functioning is in an area that Bridge and Baxter (1992) term “autonomy vs. connection” (as cited in Morrison & Nolan, 2007, p. 36) because “the workplace does not provide the usual degree of separation expected in a friendship” (Morrison & Nolan, 2007). In other words, friends can become too “chummy” and work suffers because they are having too much fun. As one participant in the Morrison & Nolan (2007) study put it, “They couldn’t separate friendship from work and wanted to talk all the time instead of work.” The final type of office friendship that often causes problems is “hierarchal friendships” (Morrison & Nolan, 2007) or friends who occupy a superior/subordinate relationship. People in these situations sometimes find it difficult to criticize or discipline one with which they share feelings of friendship. This often strains both the friendship and the working relationship and leads to situations where superiors cover for a subordinate friends instead of pointing out their deficiency. This kind of behavior can also affect others in the office because it appears as “favoritism.”

As presented in this essay, workplace friendships are a good thing when they are handled with some degree of professional decorum. However, when friendships in the workplace cross boundaries, professional and personal, and superior/subordinate, the resulting clashes can make for at best uncomfortable, and at worst, highly-toxic, not only to the individuals directly involved but also to the office at large. With these lessons in mind, we must all strive to regulate our behavior so that it conforms, and is beneficial to, the organization for which we work.

References

Morrison, R., & Nolan, T. (2007). Too much of a good thing? Difficulties with workplace friendships. University of Auckland Business Review, 9(2), 33-41.

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