Friend or Foe?: Interpersonal Relationships at Work

I think just about everyone would agree that life is better in the company of friends (or lovers), but is a company better in the presence of these relationships? It is a debate that is hard to tackle. However, we have wrestled through the positive and negative aspects of interpersonal relationships in the work place and then applied our understanding of social psychological principles to objectively come to an understanding greater than a snap judgment or an emotional appeal.

As this ABC report points out, an individual who has a best friend at work is seven times more likely to be engaged at work and eighty-eight percent more likely to be satisfied with their lives! That’s huge. One’s personal life and work life and not mutually exclusive. In fact, they very much depend on one another. That is, if there is an area of concern in someone’s personal life it is more than likely it will carry over to his or her professional life and vice versa. Therefore, an eighty-eight percent satisfaction rating when individuals have a buddy at work is highly influential on any company.

People who have a close friendship at work are fifty percent more satisfied with their job than those that don’t.  It is easy to see Cialdini’s theory of liking here. We tend to like our best friends and therefore are more likely to help them in any way. In the work place, this is effective for work performance and creates a system of support throughout the corporation. The more you care about one another, the more you care about the quality of work. This care, when appropriately applied to the work environment builds a group-dynamic and capitalizes on the idea of unity and cohesiveness. This inclusive culture emphasizes a sense of belonging and team dynamic. When individuals see themselves as part of a group, they are more likely to associate positive feelings with the company. This applied concept of in-group bias demonstrates the benefits or being part of such a collective culture. Furthermore, a form of harmony is reached when individuals are able to line their own goals with the goals of the group. For these reasons, it is important to have a collaborative work environment that values relationships among employees.

However, to be fair, there are downsides to interpersonal relationships. Take a look at this equation for example: two best friends + one promotion = resentment. It is natural to be disappointed after not receiving a promotion, but trying to sound convincing when congratulating your best friend gets tricky. It is also difficult to handle when a friendship ends and the work relationship doesn’t. If two friends/co-workers are fighting this is detrimental to workplace morale. See below example:

On the flip-side, friends also have a tendency to “have each other’s back” which doesn’t always bode well for the employer (friendship camouflage). We suggest enforcing ratings and employee reviews as a solution to this type of behavior. It forces the employee to remain individually accountable. Also, supervisors need to be very careful if they act as a superior to their friend. Employee favoritism and bias is an easy trap to fall victim to. Training sessions for upper and lower level employees must be in place to alleviate this potential.

Lastly, the things you share with your friends are not necessarily the same things you would share with your co-workers. It is difficult to maintain a professional image when sharing stories of your bedroom rendezvous. Her “friend” and coworker, Linda Tripp, taught Monica Lewinsky this lesson. Although this is an extreme example, gossip in the workplace is a common occurrence. It is important for the company to enforce communication skill workshops as well as correctly identify the root causes of gossip so the workplace is affected minimally.

In the end, the benefits of interpersonal relationships outweigh the downsides. It is true that socialization does not equal productivity, but self-esteem promotes productivity, as does a support system as mentioned previously. I support interpersonal relationships, but that doesn’t mean this conversation is over. A local psychologist, Ken Siegel remarked, “True friendships can’t exist when there are issues such as money and status at play.” What do you think? Are these friendships authentic? Also, the article highlighted that managers and employees aren’t as aligned when it comes to just how beneficial it is to have buddies on the job: 22% of employees said befriending co-workers has a “very positive” impact on productivity, while only 2% of managers felt as strongly”. Why do you think there is such a discrepancy between employers and employees?