Friendship at Work – The Benefits and the Potential For Disaster

Edna B. Shearer

We are living in an increasingly mobile society. “Until-death-do-us-part” marriages are becoming rare. Many of us can no longer depend on our extended families for social support. So where do we turn to fill in the gaps? Our friends. And, for busy professionals work is often where our friends are.

Sometimes we meet friends at work, befriending the boss, a co-worker or an employee. Sometimes we hire our friends into our workplaces. Sometimes we go into business with our friends. In any event, adding a layer of friendship onto a business relationship can bring both benefits and the potential for disaster.

Work-friends are easily accessible. Together for long periods of time, we typically share interests, experiences, a professional identity, and a common history. These friends can listen, console, advise, teach, share and support. So a workplace friendship can often provide you with an improved understanding of your world and your self.

Whether the friend is one that you hired into the workplace or one you met at work, friendship often brings team strength, more efficient decision-making, and effective conflict management. For women, especially, friendship can create a supportive business culture that discourages political behavior and promotes candor, self-disclosure, communication, tolerance, and cooperation. Friendship may bring involvement and commitment to the workplace that would not otherwise exist.

Ultimately, good working relationships and good friendships are characterized by shared goals and close contact. So friendship, which is typically associated with similarity of values, is a great foundation for workplace connections and joint decision making.

On the other hand, a workplace friendship can be detrimental to a career. Intimate sharing and excessive disclosure to a co-worker can come back and bite you in the nose. Likewise, making decisions based on friendship – ignoring what is best for the business or your career – can be professional suicide. And, a soured friendship can spill over into the workplace, disrupting and distracting.

Friends who are very involved with one another inside and outside of work often have a more trusting relationship. But this close involvement may also invite severe interpersonal conflict that brings the potential for either provoking an ugly end to the relationship or providing significant self-awareness – it can go either way.

Entrepreneurs tend to find both friends and business partners at work. Chances are you will go to a work-friend first when you want to start a new business since you already have a working relationship. However, business ownership typically brings about a change in a friendship and this change can be either positive or negative.

Friendship can serve to keep you or your business partner connected to your business. Women, especially, may stay involved, passing up more attractive opportunities because of the bonds of friendship.

Starting out with a higher level of friendship typically leads a business’ founding team to rely more on implicit agreements and less on written contracts. So difficult issues may be sidestepped and only addressed when the team has begun to encounter operational problems. Of course, it is better to discuss these issues while the partners are still within the window of venture enthusiasm and working friendship. However, often no one wants to shake up the honeymoon.

Strong relationships, partnerships and friendships benefit from honest and open communication. Is there a discussion that you have been avoiding? Is your connection to the friend, business partner, or co-worker strong enough to make it through a tough talk? If not the relationship may not be worth keeping. But, if it is, here are six tips for keeping the bonds strong even when its time to put your cards on the table.

1. Prepare. Make some notes about the situation and your feelings. Write about where you are, where you want to be, and how you might get there.

2. Set the stage. Sit down at a time when you are both clear headed and able to give this important conversation the time and energy it deserves.

3. Speak from the heart. Do not point fingers of blame. Instead focus on finding a solution that works for both of you. This is collaboration.

4. Give yourselves time to think, process the information, and cool down.

5. Don’t leave conflicts unresolved. An agreement to disagree is resolution. Leaving the conflict open sets you up for future fights.

6. If all else fails, hire a professional to help you. Often an outside opinion sheds light on your blind spots and helps reach agreement.

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