4 tips to manage workplace friendships

Are you striving for a meaningful job and a better position? Do you think that would make you feel happier? If so, you might be undervaluing something essential: the importance of workplace relationships. In a recent HBR article, a group of 160 people from different industries and positions were interviewed to find out what influences job satisfaction. The interesting thing they found is “that people whose work is mundane or demanding are just as likely to feel satisfied and fulfilled as those with fun or inspiring jobs, if they invest in relationships that nourish them and create a sense of purpose.” This is also backed up by research from Gallup, linking work friendships to higher employee satisfaction.

So the magic word is relationships. At a time when we are motivated by both career and wellbeing, healthy work relationships are more important than ever. However, work relationships and office friendships aren’t that easy; they can feel complicated, posing special challenges that you don’t experience in private interactions. Ultimately, they can fail.

So what do we need to consider when building and managing relationships at work?

1. Choose your friends wisely

You don’t have to get along with everyone in the office to reap benefits. Not everybody is the right person to make friends with. Watch for red flags in attitudes and behaviours such as dishonesty, taking advantage, and so on. While it seems easy to make friends in the office - you share so many hours together - it's not an easy environment to develop long-lasting connections. When it comes down to it, your interests might clash with your co-workers and you’ll need to assert your opinion, which might be different from the others. So observe and take your time before you cross the line between being friendly co-workers and best buddies. In general, it’s easier to make friends with people who are like us. We also tend to be more influenced by people we perceive as being similar to us. When we try to form connections with co-workers who are very different, those connections might dissolve first. So be realistic about the work friendships you build and maintain.

2. Always keep things professional

Having a close support system with your co-worker is nice, but avoid playing favourites or spending too much time chitchatting. You need to recognise when your interaction with an office friend is turning into a distraction, ultimately hindering you from getting your work done. Also be careful if this workplace friendship stops you from giving honest feedback because you’re afraid of upsetting your friend or if it prevents other colleagues from establishing a relationship with you, or vice versa.
It’s also important to spare your work friends the details of your performance reviews and limit sharing of private issues that might cause problems for you at work. Getting too close to a work friend can mean that he or she ends up knowing just a little bit too much about you. You don't need to tell your office friend your deepest secrets or long-term goals. If you think someone is your friend and it turns out not to be true, you could regret placing your trust in them. So keeping a professional distance can be helpful.

3. Work friends as your only social circle

If your office culture is people driven and fosters close relationship building, you might feel like your co-workers understand you best. They feel like “family” to you because they’re engaged in the same work environment. And in fact, family members and friends outside the workplace don’t always understand what our work entails. But just as we need relationships outside family, we need friends outside the workplace. Non-work friends are interested in you and help you stay grounded. They will also tell you when it seems like your work is getting unhealthy for you.

4. Changing power dynamics

The dynamics of a workplace friendship change when a promotion comes into play. When your office friend suddenly becomes your manager, you will go through a range of emotions and it will be hard to face the new situation without jealousy. However, consider how your friend’s promotion could benefit you in your daily work. Remember what you both discussed and wanted to change when you were colleagues. Now that your co-worker is in a position of higher power, he or she may actually be able to introduce some changes.

If you’re the one promoted, now in charge of your office friend and former peers, you'll have to adjust your behaviours and interactions to avoid compromising your new role. You don't want to make it seem like you’re giving some people an advantage, creating an environment of favouritism or giving a pass for bad behaviour. You know that overly familiar relationships can damage your credibility. Therefore, meet with your new team members and outline your new role and responsibilities clearly. This will automatically help to set some boundaries. It’s likely that some of your office friendships will change. Some people will withdraw, taking a step back. Conversations might also change and invitations to join after work drinks might stop. If you start to feel isolated, compensate for this by building new relationships with other managers or by meeting someone new in your industry every week.

Workplace friendships don’t just make our day-to-day work more enjoyable - they’re also healthy and integral to our success and well-being. By being aware of the social dynamics of every workplace and the necessity of setting some boundaries, both employees and organisations will benefit from a company culture that boosts relationship building.

Red flags for establishing deeper workplace connections:

• If you’ve shared something in confidence and you find it’s soon known throughout the office
• If your colleague minimises your accomplishments or doesn’t seem to want you be (too) successful
• If your colleague is very territorial about their area and is easily threatened, not open to sharing and discussion
• If your colleague is toxic, with a very negative attitude, or complains a lot

To be happier at work invest more in your relationships
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