Business & Careers

What You Haven’t Considered About The Dark Side Of Friendships At Work

BY Darrah Brustein

Friendships at work

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We spend the majority of our waking hours at work, so making friends there is natural. But have you considered the down sides to company collegiality?

With organizational culture and who your peers are often dictating who takes roles and stays in them, it’s worth considering both the good and the bad to these relationships.

More and more companies like Google, Zappos, and Southwest Airlines are explicitly promoting collegial cultures, and instituting policies and programs to make coworkers more like buddies than colleagues.

With the nature of work itself becoming more social, especially knowledge and service-based work, Millennials and younger generations are used to greater informality and integration between their personal and professional lives.

I spoke with Julianna Pillemer, a PhD candidate in Management at The Wharton School, and Nancy P. Rothbard, Professor of Management at The Wharton School, to go deeper on this topic based on their findings in Friends Without Benefits: Understanding the Dark Sides of Workplace Friendship.

“As blurred boundaries become the new normal, friendship is going to increasingly become central to work” shares Pillemer. “Many organizations are encouraging employees to ‘bring their whole self to work,’ which means that people will be sharing things about themselves, and engaging in this kind of personal, authentic self-disclosure is a key driver of friendship.”

Julianna Pillemer, PhD candidate in Management at The Wharton SchoolPHOTOGRAPHER: SHIRA YUDKOFF

What makes friendship at work so complicated?

According to their study, Pillemer and Rothbard found that the core features of friendship are in conflict with key features of most organizations. Rothbard expands, “These fundamental tensions can create friction at work, bringing out the dark sides of friendship.”

“Friendship can feel really amazing, and connecting with others is key to workplace productivity and engagement. Yet when you take a more holistic approach to understanding these relationships, you see quickly how a really positive relationship for individuals can have negative effects on work productivity and the functioning of the organization,” explains Pillemer.

The same things that make friendship feel so great can lead to downsides, both for people in the friendship as well as for outsiders.

Nancy P. Rothbard, David Pottruck Professor of Management at The Wharton SchoolPHOTOGRAPHER: SHIRA YUDKOFF

The key downsides of friendship at work

This may read like a prescription drug ad, but friendships can lead to: deep emotional distraction, feeling conflicted between role of friend and formal role (for individuals); lower quality group decision making on complex tasks (for teams); the formation of cliques and silos, reducing communication, and perceptions of favoritism (for departments and organizations). Social media can amplify these dark sides too.

All work friendships are not created equal

Features such as closeness, how long you’ve been friends and formal status between friends all impact what types of dark sides you can expect to see.

“For example, in our paper we suggest that there may be a reverse Goldilocks effect for closeness of friendship. A person you have just friendly, superficial conversations with, or your best friend, may be less likely to cause certain issues. However, when friendships are in that murky middle area, close but not super-close, there is greater room for misunderstanding and challenges.” says Pillemer.

How social media is changing the way we form friendships with coworkers

Connecting on social media creates “boundary transparency” between personal and professional realms. “With just one click and ‘friending’ someone, you obtain a wealth of information, a window into one's’ personal life that typically colleagues would never have about each other ten, even five years ago” explains Pillemer.

“While in real life conversations you can tailor what you share to match the person you are speaking with, social media just provides a floodgate of untailored disclosure and information. This is a good thing if you are similar to the person, but can be not so great if it highlights differences between you”, expands Rothbard.

Social media can also heighten the visibility of cliques to outsiders, as anyone who's seen coworkers post photos hanging out without them can attest.

 

How employees and managers can approach friendship to guard against downsides

Overall, friendship at work can be a wonderful, enriching thing. “We are strong believers that friendships at work are not only good, they are necessary to get things done,” says Rothbard.

Managers can institute policies to reduce downsides of similarity attraction, such as cross-functional lunches or encourage informal connections between people who wouldn’t usually cross paths.

Employees can be thoughtful and deliberate about setting (and crossing) boundaries, especially in new relationships and those across hierarchical lines.

Rothbard concludes, “You want to avoid the teacher’s pet phenomenon, in which people perceive favoritism and unfairness.”

So go, befriend, and beware of your boundaries.

Want more tips on how to create the life you want through intentional relationship building? Get your FREE ebook “The 55 Best Questions To Ask To Break The Ice And Really Get To Know Someone” here.

This article was originally published on Forbes.

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