Kids make friends so easily. They simply spot another child and ask “Will you be my friend?” If the answer is yes, within minutes they have instant harmony.
But it is not so easy for adults to recognize true friends. And work relationships are even trickier to pin down and define. Even though we spend most of our days with work buddies — and we enjoy their company — it is worth carefully evaluating the depth of these relationships with a critical eye.
There is good reason to second-guess friendships. Research from Tel Aviv University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that we are not good at judging who our true friends are. And perhaps more important, we overestimate our influence on them.
In my own experience, I have seen the line between friend and work colleague blur.
Two distinct experiences spring to mind. In one, I hired my former work buddy and eventually regretted the decision. In another experience, my validation of a colleague’s meaningful contributions was questioned by leadership because of our friendship.
The confusion over where work ends and our personal life begins is not unique to any one industry. But no matter if you work in finance, product management, or education, the truth is that work is deeply personal.
The very nature of work today requires collaborating with people we like and respect. Close relationships with colleagues can lead to increased productivity and happiness.
However, if the studies are true — that people overestimate influence over friends — we may want to rethink how workplace camaraderie affects decision making. Yes, it is true that our definitions of professionalism have shifted over the years. We may now cry or even get angry at work. But professional boundaries remain important.
If you cannot discern whether your work buddy is a true friend or merely a workplace acquaintance it may even pose a danger to your career. You may find that you inadvertently:
You might do things you would not do for others — covering for a “friend” when they do not get their work done, for example. The flip side is also true. While you may not intentionally show favoritism to your work buddy, others within the organization may doubt your ability to judge their work impartially. Because you like this person — and want them to like you — it’s not unusual to want them to succeed. If you have leverage, you may even bend the rules to help them get ahead, or promote their ideas over others.
If you allow friendship to cloud your judgment, you may overestimate that friend’s accomplishments. Critical feedback can be tougher to give to a friend because you don’t want to affect or disrupt the friendship. But it is your job to cultivate success — not to worry that you might hurt someone’s feelings. If you prioritize workplace camaraderie over candor, you are only hurting yourself in the long run.
Friends should be able to tell each other anything, right? Except when that information is privileged. If you overestimate the depth of your friendship, you might share confidential information. Do not you assume your work buddy will keep secrets — or you may suffer later when they share that confidential info with others.
You might give them a pass on poor work or behaviors that you would not tolerate from other colleagues. Perhaps your work buddy has an acerbic sense of humor, so you dismiss sarcastic comments that would normally require a serious conversation about workplace communication. Or perhaps your work buddy is chronically late. No matter the specific problem, overlooking issues is a symptom of blurred boundaries.
Work relationships can be gratifying, but they also can be complicated. It is not to say that your work buddies can never become your true friends, but it is a difficult bridge to cross.
Navigating workplace friendships requires maturity — both from you and your buddy.
By all means, forge those lasting bonds with colleagues. But hold firm in your high standards and professionalism. And be aware of the potential pitfalls that might negatively impact your career if you overestimate the depth of your friendship.
Do you think work buddies can ever be true friends?
Originally published on the Aha! blog