Managing the dark side of workplace friendships

Discussion
May 17, 2018

Knowledge@Wharton staff

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?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"As long as organizations apply common sense and fairness to rules and decisions, I don’t see much of an issue here."
"As people, we tend to form relationships around personal things and controlling these factors has never succeeded."
"A challenge arises where internal cliques override the greater team, this is why great leaders are needed to navigate through all the complexities..."

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12 Comments on "Managing the dark side of workplace friendships"


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Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

We’re humans. We’re sociable. Throw any group of people together and relationships will form, some of which will be complex and problematic. There’s really no way to avoid this.

As long as organizations apply common sense and fairness to rules and decisions, I don’t see much of an issue here.

Celeste C. Giampetro
Guest

It’s a great perk if you’re friends or friendly with those you work with. But it’s a “work”place and I do see how friendships could alienate others in volunteering for projects or feeling like their voice is heard. It’s up to the manager and the leadership team to recognize signs of exclusionary behavior and ensure professionalism and respect in the workplace.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

Attempting to manage work friendships, or any relationships at work is difficult if not impossible. Every organization from school to work to church, etc. has to deal with friendships and the dynamics of relationships at the group level. Controlling these at the organizational level is not what an organization is built upon nor should it ever be a focus of the organization. As people, we tend to form relationships around personal things and controlling these factors has never succeeded. Recognizing this and working around these factors is the best advice, rather than trying to control or “avoid” relationships.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

There are certain things that can not be controlled in the working environment. One of those is who you choose to be friends or friendly with. One thing work environments want is good teamwork. It is virtually impossible to have a homogeneous team without the members having some degree of friendship. I do not see the problem as being serious unless the friendship starts to interfere with the work. Then, usually one of the two has to go either to another department or another company.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Wow. Now we have to be worried about friendships at work? I’m not an organizational psychologist, but I’m going to share one thought. There is a reason that comedy writers have success with jokes about workplace relationships. They are funny, complicated, sometimes tragic — and they are real.

Peter Luff
BrainTrust

Great sports teams typically have players that get on with one another as a whole and have the ability to “storm” among themselves at given moments, I am sure the same thing plays true in daily work also.

A challenge arises where internal cliques override the greater team, this is why great leaders are needed to navigate through all the complexities a team will face, including relationships.

I don’t see work friendships as a major issue.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Whether in a corporate office setting, a distribution center or a physical store, retailers have always had to manage the human side of their businesses. Employee relationships need to be acknowledged and managed in real time. Management ignoring staff friendships can often result in conflicts, and this can happen anywhere in the organization. Leadership must address conflicts as they happen before they become a serious problem. Actions, and leading by example speak louder than words.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Might I suggest that the whole issue of friendships being “too close” or exclusionary (to other employees) can be summed up readily: unprofessional. Which is to say that companies or stores that are beset with cliques and favoritism are almost assuredly poorly run in other, even most areas as well.

Shelley E. Kohan
BrainTrust

Studies have shown having friends at work promotes higher employee engagement resulting in less turnover and better service delivery to the customer. The Gallup Q12 survey which has been used for years includes the question “Do you have a best friend at work?” Friendships at work are mostly positive. However, like any other element involving people, the consistency factor can divide “positive” friendships from “problematic” friendships. Companies that promote inclusion, diversity and a strong employee culture, should not have an issue with friendships in the workplace.

Matthew McAlister
Guest

I have always felt that close friendships at work do nothing but deepen the loyalty of employees to the business, create warmth, and promote culture. Especially in a startup environment like CB4, a single friendship has the tendency to branch out to include the rest company, resulting in more after-work drinks, company outings, and a better sense of community. The onus is on those friends, however, to actively invite and include the rest of the team. You spend more time with your colleagues than anyone else in your life; it’s a good thing when you’re close.

Dan Frechtling
BrainTrust

Shelly is right that studies show having friends at work yields better employee engagement and better customer service. This engagement also yields better financial performance — Gallup found a more engaged workforce produces 147% higher earnings per share.

Psychologists have extolled relationships for decades. Other academics agree. Anthropologists have found the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size is not the need for problem-solving intelligence but rather the size of species’ social groups. Economists say seeing a friend on most days is worth an extra $100,000 in annual income.

Any organizational inefficiencies from friendships can be managed much more effectively than a disengaged and anti-social workforce.

Christopher P. Ramey
BrainTrust

Friendships manifest comfort. I’ve always believed everyone needs a friend at work. God knows, as you move up the ladder, you’ll have enemies.

Companies aren’t too different from high school. People who share the same values will gravitate to each other. This will create biases that are difficult to manage.

C-suite executives aren’t exempt. Sucking-up is alive and well, and painfully obvious to other employees. No one has ever promoted a person they didn’t like over a friend. After all, the platform for friendship is loyalty.

The exclusionary nature of cliques is detrimental. Some people have your back and some have a knife for your back.

Nurture friendships that foster energy and innovation. Disintermediate relationships that are sexual, political and promote favoritism or nepotism. Good luck with that….

There is a fine line between friendships, teams and silos.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"As long as organizations apply common sense and fairness to rules and decisions, I don’t see much of an issue here."
"As people, we tend to form relationships around personal things and controlling these factors has never succeeded."
"A challenge arises where internal cliques override the greater team, this is why great leaders are needed to navigate through all the complexities..."

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