You Need a Work Best Friend

Photo: NBC

Do you have a best friend at work? This seemingly simple question once caused quite a bit of controversy at Gallup, the management consulting powerhouse. The question is included in the Q12, one of 12 survey items that are thought to be the best indicators of employee engagement. But Gallup’s researchers freely admit that more than a few senior executives balked at using the Q12 altogether, because they couldn’t quite understand why the friendship item was in there in the first place. 

But Donald Clifton, the former educational psychologist who founded Gallup and developed the Q12 survey, insisted on measuring workplace friendships for good reason; It’s one of the strongest predictors of productivity. Studies show that employees with a best friend at work tend to be more focused, more passionate, and more loyal to their organizations. They get sick less often, suffer fewer accidents, and change jobs less frequently. They even have more satisfied customers. 

Why would friends be better at working together than acquaintances? A joint study by management professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Minnesota offers a clue. Researchers began by asking students in a large course to identify classmates with whom they have a “close interpersonal relationship.” They then used that information to assign students to small groups made up of either close friends or mutual acquaintances. 

What the researchers wanted to know was this: Could preexisting friendships benefit some activities but interfere with others? To find out, they had all the groups complete two different assignments. The first was a decision-making project involving collaborative thinking, and the second was a model-building task involving repetitive manual labor. 

The results were definitive: Friends outperformed acquaintances on both tasks. The reason? Friends were more committed at the start of a project, showed better communication while doing the activity, and offered teammates positive encouragement every step of the way. They also evaluated ideas more critically and gave one another feedback when they were off course. 

Acquaintances, on the other hand, took a different approach. They appeared to prefer working alone, engaging one another only when it was absolutely necessary. They were also less comfortable seeking help and resisted pointing out when one of their coworkers was making a mistake. Instead of fusing into a group and leveraging one another’s strengths, their lack of connection was holding them back. They were operating in silos. 

Research suggests that workplace friendships yield more productive employees, and it’s not just because friends are easier to work with. It’s also because there is more on the line. Feeling a connection with colleagues can motivate employees to work harder for a simple reason. When colleagues are close, a poor effort means more than a dissatisfied customer or an unhappy manager. It means letting down your friends. The social pressure to do a good job can often serve as a stronger motivator than anything a boss can say. 

Workplace friendships also benefit organizations for another reason: Employees with better friendships tend to stay on with their company for longer periods of time. In today’s world, loyalty to an organization has become an antiquated concept, one that rarely determines people’s career decisions. But when our coworkers are our friends, it suddenly becomes harder to leave. Often it’s our loyalty to our colleagues that keeps us from accepting a tempting offer with another company. 

What happens when there’s a lack of friendships in the workplace? Psychologists call it process loss, and if you’ve ever worked with a difficult colleague, you’ve probably witnessed it firsthand. The technical definition is “wasted energy and loss of productivity caused by interpersonal difficulties.” We all recognize the symptoms. The mild version involves the occasional miscommunication. More acute cases are rife with unresolved tension, breakdowns in collaboration, and, eventually, full on turf wars. Instead of focusing all your attention on your work, you find yourself sidetracked by interpersonal drama, which invariably makes you worse at your job. 

So how do you make workplace friends? According to a famous 1997 study by relationship expert Arthur Aron, intimacy can develop rather quickly between strangers with a little self-disclosure — deeper personal revelations than the standard small talk stuff. But how relevant are Aron’s observations to workplace friendships? After all, self-disclosure might be a good way of bonding with a buddy at the gym or a new neighbor. But in a competitive work environment, where everything we say and do reflects on our level of professionalism, shouldn’t we be a little more discreet? Is opening up and sharing emotionally sensitive information with coworkers really a wise approach? 

Research conducted by Washington State University professor Patricia Sias suggests it is, at least if your goal is to make friends. Sias and her colleague Daniel Cahill investigated the development of workplace friendships by asking employees to identify one coworker with whom they have a close relationship. They then interviewed both colleagues to determine how the two initially became friends. 

What they discovered is that close workplace friendships tend to follow a distinct pattern that is marked by three key transitions. The first is the transition between acquaintance to friend. Sias and Cahill report that, for the most part, all it takes for this transition to occur is working near a colleague for a period of about a year and occasionally collaborating on team projects. How can you tell if coworkers are friends? Usually, by the amount of time they spend discussing non-workplace topics. The more frequently colleagues talked about non-work matters, the closer they tended to be. There’s an important lesson here for anyone interested in growing their influence in the workplace: When all you do at the office is talk shop, you might develop a reputation for being competent, but you’re not likely to end up with a lot of friends. 

The real surprise in Sias and Cahill’s study came when they looked at the second and third transitions, the ones that turned friends into close friends, and close friends into best friends. Here the proximity and common ground that prompted the first transition were nowhere near enough to catalyze a strong connection. What was? Sharing problems from one’s personal, home and work life. The self-disclosure that Aron’s research indicated was so critical for generating interpersonal closeness was also, as Sias and Cahill discovered, at the core of long-term relationships at work. 

The challenge for many of us, of course, is that proactively sharing potentially embarrassing information is a little like visiting an emotional casino. If your listener reciprocates with a few revelations of their own, the payoffs can be big: You stand to win a deeper and more satisfying relationship. But if your disclosure isn’t reciprocated — or worse, if it’s criticized — you end up feeling exposed, and that experience is painful. 

The irony is that close relationships are often built upon a foundation of shared risk. It’s when we reveal our vulnerability that we acquire new friends. Even, it seems, at the office. 

Excerpted from THE BEST PLACE TO WORK: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace by Ron Friedman, Ph.D., with the permission of Perigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright Ron Friedman, 2014.