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A Little Secret to Being Happier at Work

Work friendships can be strong sources of social capital, which, in turn, can allow people to work better and more efficiently together.

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On average, I work about 56 hours per week.  Coincidentally, I also sleep (or try to sleep) about 56 hours each week, leaving me another 56 hours to spend time with family and friends, eat, exercise, and possibly even find some time to read a book or watch a movie. 

I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that I spend about a third of my life – or half of my waking life – working.  But I’m not complaining, and I say this not just because I like my job.  You see, many of my work colleagues are also my friends, so while I do work hard, I feel grateful that I get to do so with friends.

Now that I’ve made these admissions, some who are reading this may be questioning the wisdom of being friends – sometimes good friends – with work colleagues.  Some say it’s an absolutely terrible idea to become friends with co-workers.  I found an article on Salary.com called “7 Ways to Avoid Being Friends with Coworkers.”  In a Forbes article entitled “3 Reasons Workplace Friendships Are a Lie,” we are warned that “you can’t be friends with someone you see as competition or who sees you as competition,” and “don’t flatter yourself; your subordinates or superiors aren’t your pals.”

Before I go on, it’s important to recognize that no one should be forced to befriend the people they work with.  We all should have the right to come to work and see our jobs as a means to earn income, pursue a meaningful career, and hopefully improve ourselves along the way without having to forge friendships with our colleagues.

For those, however, who seek to make work a bit more joyful, I recommend being open to sharing the professional journey with friends – especially given the amount of time we spend at our jobs.  That’s not necessarily advice you’ll get in business school or in your training and education programs at work.  More joy is not a requirement, and it’s not something that most companies prioritize – at least not yet.

Yet, that might change.  Friendships at work can actually offer more than just joy.  Indeed, they can offer much more than that both to employees and to employers.  Work friendships can be strong sources of social capital, which, in turn, can allow people to work better and more efficiently together.  They can inspire greater loyalty and retention, better communication, better productivity, and better morale, along with supporting a stronger and more cohesive culture.

Skeptical?  In its “State of the American Workplace” study, Gallup regularly asks whether respondents “have a best friend at work” and then offers its observations around the answers.  Here are some of those observations:

“More than any other element, ‘I have a best friend at work’ tends to generate questions and skepticism.  But one stubborn fact about this element of engagement cannot be denied: It predicts performance.  Early research on employee engagement and the elements revealed a unique social pattern among employees in top performing teams.  When employees possess a deep sense of affiliation with their team members, they are driven to take positive actions that benefit the business — actions they may not otherwise even consider.”

The study continues:

“The best friend question sometimes gets a bad rap, but it consistently shows a strong relationship to improvements in customer engagement, profit, employee safety incidents and patient safety incidents.  Beyond any talk of business outcomes or scientific validity, though, is a very simple premise: To ignore friendships is to ignore human nature.  Yet, many organizations continue to abide by policies that dissuade or flat out discourage people from socializing or becoming friends.”

But what about the points above about competition and being friends with “subordinates” and “superiors”?  Did I mention that I’m a CEO?  Are there different rules for me, or is it altogether prohibited for me to have friends at work?

Let’s first look at the terminology.  Friends or not, I find terms like “subordinates” and “superiors” to be somewhat disrespectful.  I understand the need for hierarchies as well as clear accountability and reporting structures, but, for me, the above terms need to find their way to the deleted-items file.

As for issues that can arise with friends at work, I acknowledge them.  The issues are real, and to start, in the workplace, we must always respect the legal boundaries that we cannot cross even with friends.  We do need rules, including that work friendships must be authentic and not based on ulterior or inappropriate motives.  A “friendship” that really is just a pretense for harassment, bullying, spying, discrimination, advancement, or influence-peddling is neither a friendship nor in any way appropriate – ever.

We also cannot allow work friendships to lead to favoritism (actual or apparent), create social pressures on others – especially those struggling to fit in – or otherwise get in the way of how an efficient business should operate.  Expanding on this latter point, we cannot allow these relationships to blind us to opportunities to do things differently or better.

Nevertheless, these important cautions are not reasons to declare that friendships at work should be discouraged or prohibited.  They just mean that we need to be careful, respectful, and aware.

As for CEOs and other members of management, they must be especially mindful of their responsibilities.  They should never force or manufacture a friendship, especially given their positions, and never allow friendships to get in the way of their duties.  I’ve had some very difficult conversations with work friends over the years and have lost some of those friends in the process.

Yet, I don’t believe that a CEO must avoid naturally occurring friendships at work.  For me, it would be disingenuous to avoid this kind of organic behavior.  It also would have consequences.  My work friendships have bolstered my longevity at my company.  Without them, I doubt that I would have lasted more than a few years as the CEO.  With them, I have that many more reasons to feel joy at work – where I spend a third of my life.

Sheryl Sandberg said that “motivation comes from working on things we care about.  It also comes from working with people we care about.”  I agree, and I’m grateful to do so every day I come to work.

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