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The challenges of friendships in the workplace

August 30, 2021

As a leader making friends with colleagues comes with risk – a sense of deference and distance makes it easier to have those tough conversations.  Yet there’s a body of research that suggests that the stronger the bonds are between colleagues the more successful the organisation.

In their Q12 engagement survey Gallup came up with just 12 statements to identify the primary indicators of employee engagement and performance and one of these was ‘Do you have a best friend at work?’  As the name Q12 suggests, the survey contains only 12 statements. So why did Gallup include one about friendship to assess the broad subject of workplace engagement?

Gallup’s research found that employees with a best friend at work were seven times more likely to engage fully in their work and that these people tend to feel much higher levels of job satisfaction.  Perhaps more startling is the impact of not having friends at work:

  • Communication is restricted as information is withheld
  • Mistrust becomes endemic and has to be combated by introducing lengthy and often inefficient processes
  • Staff turnover is high
  • Office gossip and politics become part of the architecture
  • People work to differing objectives and lose a shared sense of purpose
  • Poor performance results in blame

America’s hugely admired Southwest Airlines – thought to be the inspiration for the low cost airline industry – actively encourages friendships at work.  This approach has served them well with market share continuing to grow while the company has defied the odds by achieving a four-decade long period of profit and reporting earnings and revenue for Q1 2013 that exceeded Wall Street expectations (source NASDAQ.com, 24 July 2013).

One employee tells the story of how, when his home was destroyed by a hurricane, an army of Southwest employees turned up voluntarily the next morning on what remained of his doorstep to help clear up the mess.  CEO of Southwest Gary Kelly expects his leaders to “model the culture: spending time with employees, treating them with respect, having fun, being there for them personally and professionally, and putting people first – with empathy, kindness and compassion.”

The cynics would argue that friendships also lead to groupthink, wasted time, carelessness and cause damage when friends fall out.  They may have a point, particularly in environments where leaders aren’t also clear about their team’s purpose and the organisation’s vision and values. Where the purpose and values are understood however, allowing people to be the social animals they are at work looks to be a strategic advantage.

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