Managing the dark side of workplace friendships
Presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article published with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Friendships at work are typically seen as being beneficial. They are expected to bring people closer, create a feel-good environment and make it fun to come to work. But friendships can also create complexities and tensions for those inside and outside the circle.
Nancy Rothbard, Wharton management professor, and Julianna Pillemer, a Wharton doctoral candidate whose research focuses on organizational behavior, say this is because of a conflict between the defining features of friendship and those of an organization. In their paper, “Friends Without Benefits: Understanding the Dark Sides of Workplace Friendship,” the two explore the dynamics and challenges of these relationships.
“Friendship at work can be really valuable to people. But it’s not a uniformly good thing,” said Ms. Rothbard in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton. “There are complexities and tensions that arise because of a number of features of organizational life which make friendship more difficult to navigate in the workplace.”
Close friendships, for instance, can become distracting in a workplace. Said Ms. Rothbard, “It can lead to needing to engage with other people in a way that can be emotionally taxing to you, if it’s too deep.”
Making hard decisions can also become more difficult in situations such as group meetings. Added Ms. Rothbard, “If they’re friends, it can be hard to go against somebody who’s advocating really strongly for one particular position, because they might get mad at you.”
Finally, in a classic clique type of situation, friendships can make other co-workers feel excluded.
One step managers can take is having employees from different areas team up rather than letting employees choose partners. But a general awareness of potential conflicts should help.
Individuals should be “deliberately inclusive” of workers they’re not as close to. Some boundaries could be set with work friends on when to catch up during work time. Friends should also expect to challenge each other at group meetings. Said Ms. Rothbard, “And we’re going to talk about this explicitly up front, so that you know I’m not doing this because I’m annoyed at you. I’m doing this because this is what our job is.”
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you agree that work friendships can sometimes cause organizational inefficiencies? What advice would you have for managing cliques and other potential work-friend conflicts? Would you have the same suggestions for employees on selling floors versus offices and other areas?