Of friends and foes at work

work wifeIn a recent post we discussed how technology increasingly shapes where, when, and how we work. The ability to work “anytime, anywhere” leads many of us to bring work home – for better and for worse (in sickness and in health). I was thinking along these lines about how we differentiate our work lives from our personal lives, more specifically our personal relationships from our work relationships. It’s a fact that we spend a great number of our waking hours at work with our colleagues and customers. It would be irrational to expect that we would not form meaningful relationships with these people. But what are the boundaries that we put around these relationships? Should they be more professional, and what does that mean exactly? How do we determine where that line is?

As we have discussed before, we humans are emotional creatures and cannot leave our emotions at the door. We get frustrated and angry; we need perspective and understanding. We experience pride and joy; we need to share it with others. For these reasons, workplace friendships are vital to our wellbeing at work. In fact, research shows that having a friendship at work increases job satisfaction by 50%, and increases the odds of being engaged seven times. Having someone who gets your brand of humor or shares an out-of-the-office interest helps you feel like you are bringing your whole self to your job. Having someone you feel safe blowing off some steam with before diving back into the fray helps you manage stress and avoid burnout. We all want to be comfortable at work, to feel that we can be our true, authentic selves. We want to have a sense of collegiality, inclusivity, and camaraderie with our coworkers.

At the same time, we also have some sense that there is a level of emotional expression and sharing that is improper at work. We also need to feel safe. Putting ourselves and our emotions out at work is a slightly more risky endeavor than it is in our personal lives. At home we can trust that our family and friends will provide unconditional positive regard. They are not likely to throw us under the bus for an infraction here or there. But at work we are also transacting – we give our best work in exchange for income and other benefits. Our reputations and relationships in part function as currency on which we trade to get things done. If our reputations or relationships break down, it will ultimately undermine our success. By over-emoting or crossing relationship lines at work, we risk our livelihood.

The need to walk this tight rope carefully is even more important when it comes to the relationships between leaders and managers and the people who report to them than it is among peers. It can be a tricky thing, the need to relate well enough that you can inspire your people to do their best, to convey to them your personal belief in their competence and capacity for growth, while at the same time making sure that the line isn’t blurred. When bosses and employees are “too close” there may be confusion about duties – if I don’t go to the happy hour every Tuesday night, how will that affect my performance review? If you have a closer relationship with some direct reports than others, jealousies and perceived unfairness may become an issue. From groupthink and cliques to time lost on teambuilding activities, many organizational leaders are wary of encouraging coworker bonding.

But the truth is that the benefits of a cohesive work teams outweigh the risks. And it isn’t just the employee who benefits. Beyond increasing employee satisfaction and engagement and decreasing stress and burnout, strong relationships among employees also increase productivity and loyalty, ultimately decreasing turnover. The key to reaping the benefits and hedging the risks is in awareness and communication. When employees and managers especially have strong interpersonal skills, the natural complexities of interrelationships can be handled painlessly. Organizations need to focus on aligning employees toward a shared purpose and cultivating a climate of mutual trust and respect – from these pillars, effective relationships will naturally evolve.