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Essay: Workplace Friendships – A Mythological Competitive Advantage?

Posted by on December 11, 2014

Something that has always struck me as odd is workplace friendships. This, to me, is like the myth of Big Foot – spoken about in hushed terms but adamantly supported behind closed doors, especially by those who claim to have seen it or – even more profusely – experienced it. Perhaps in today’s day-and-age, it is more likely to have work friends. Consider the fact that business structures are changing so rapidly – although still the majority go-to structure, the hierarchical nature of organisations is slowly transforming into flatter and more matrix-driven approaches. Particularly of interest in this regard is the nature of teams within organisations. We used to see departmentally driven teams more often, but now it is not that uncommon to see teams forming according to functional requirements. The process of forming, norming, storming, and performing is rapidly becoming a knack of high-performing organisations that gain competitive edge through their ability to put together task teams that have various more benefits than disadvantages.

So now the question is, in flatter, more equalised environments, where the say of one individual (who might have originally have been below that of another) weighs as much as that of another (who might have originally have been above that of others), is “friendships” a benefit or a disadvantage to the organisation? Before, it would be quite unlikely to hear of a boss being a friend with a subordinate, and if they were friends then there were likely to be very many complications along the way. Needless to say, that friendship would have to have very strong ties to get over the likely conflict scenarios bound to head in their direction.

So then what is the difference now? Alright, we have flatter structures and therefore more equality. People feel freer to speak up and voice their opinions or concerns. There is greater diversity as people are forced to mingle amongst others in order to reach different deadlines and complete various assignments. This means, of course, that people no longer have the excuse of “but I don’t know anyone else outside of my department”. Also, people used to have stronger tendencies to remain impersonal and professional within one’s department, but in structures where the “department” is pretty much a thing on paper rather than reality, this excuse no longer exists.

And all of this breeds forth companionship. Comrades. Partners… Friends.

Which, naturally, makes one wonder: is this a good thing? The fact that people are so buddy-buddy with each other can give incredible benefits to an organisation. The obvious one is that everyone will feel comfortable within each other’s presence, thereby allowing all voices to be heard and ideas to be reviewed. In the same sense, subordinates would not feel obliged to agree with ideas from superiors and could, theoretically, be conducive to constructive criticism and positive conflict. Finally, with everyone getting along nicely, there is the obvious benefit of each employee’s wellness being taken care of, particularly in regards to emotional wellness.

But let’s not get too hasty – there are, after all, two sides to every coin. The downfalls of an overly friendship-driven environment can result in serious constraints to the business’s performance. The first of these constraints is group think; get too comfortable, then any group, no matter how diverse in nature, will lead to the monotonous configuration of minds to all think and act alike; not at all a good idea for good ideas. And we cannot forget that, with friendships, come loyalties and expectations, which, more often than not, lead to alliances. Think about a scenario involving an unethical act – if it were your friend, are you more or less likely to report them or call them out? The emotional burden that comes along with friendship is not something to take lightly. And let’s not forget about the in-and-out group syndrome: with carefully planned teams made up of happily related people, there are great difficulties experienced by new individuals trying to understand and fit into the norms and values of the group.

Friendships bring with them a myriad of reactions which ripple through all environments with the same intensity, whether the work world or social lives of the employees. As soon as the boundaries of these areas become blurred, the likelihood is that the resulting effects will indeed have an impact on the organisation. So what is a boss to do? Condone friendships within the workplace? Or discourage them? The answer, I believe, lies in the intended corporate culture. Those in charge need to make a conscious decision as to what they intend their business environment to be like. And then another question begging an answer relates to whether or not friendships are the best response to the intended culture. Yes, with friendships one can expect to have open and supportive relations, however in a positive work environment that encourages interaction on a professional level, who is to say the same cannot be achieved? Therefore, what, really, is the benefit of friendships if the same results can come about in another more business-savvy way?

Perhaps the answer lies in loyalty. The ties and bonds created through mutual understanding and empathetic compassion cannot easily be duplicated through the cold exterior of professionalism, but rather through the warmth of solid and un-duplicable friendship; something that can create a competitive advantage without even knowing about it. These are the ties that lead to “all for one and one for all” mentality, whilst simultaneously providing fodder for positive performance and happy employees.

And surely that is all that a boss really needs?

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Wonder White Rabbit hopping off

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