Friendship

5 Ways Your Friends at Work Can Help You, and 5 Ways They Can Hurt You

Friends make work more fun and tolerable, but they sometimes pose risks.
5 Ways Your Friends at Work Can Help You, and 5 Ways They Can Hurt You
Image credit: Westend61 | Getty Images
Entrepreneur Staff
10 min read

Everyone has different types of friends, who play various roles in their lives. There are those you have fun with, those who advise you, those who support you, those who push you to be your best self and more. Some friends even perform multiple roles.

The same can be true of friends at work. Some might be people you occasionally get a drink with, while there are others you chat with daily and even keep posted about your biggest personal accomplishments and struggles. One in five working people surveyed by Gallup strongly agree with the statement “I have a best friend at work.”

Others yet might be strictly professional friends, keeping your best career interests in mind, counseling you about how to approach a big meeting or making introductions between you and others in your company or field. These types of friends are commonly called allies -- or sponsors, if they rank above you.

Related: How Women Can Build Stronger Relationships at Work -- and Actually Boost Their Careers

While friendships may naturally develop and help you and your co-workers feel more integrated into your workplace’s culture, there are some downsides to watch out for when it comes to work friends. There are also some potential upsides that you may not even be aware of, or ways in which your friends can help you that you hadn’t considered.

Read on for five ways friendships at work can positively influence your life and career -- and five ways they can drain you.

1. They can hold you accountable.

When it comes to any kind of goal you have in your job or career, a friend or ally at work can help you meet it. Simply telling someone you’re going to do something, such as meet with your manager for monthly check-ins, can set you up for success in sticking to your plan.

That friend might gently nudge you, “Hey, I thought you were going to chat with the boss about a promotion soon,” or “You said you wanted to meet more people in our industry. Want to come to this happy hour with me next week?”

It’s all about finding someone who will help keep you consistent and on track, says Lauren McGoodwin, founder and CEO of Career Contessa. Think of this friend as the professional version of a “workout buddy” who makes sure you show up for your morning run, she explains, or a person that performs the same support function as a resource group such as Weight Watchers.

2. They can stick up for you.

In group settings such as meetings, work friends can play an especially powerful role. As an individual, you may feel outnumbered and intimidated to speak up if someone talks over you or takes credit for your ideas. Or you may feel helpless to advocate for yourself if a manager insists that a tight deadline is reasonable and no one else in the room seems skeptical.

Women aides in former President Barack Obama’s White House famously utilized a strategy called “amplification” during meetings. If a man took credit for a woman’s ideas, another woman in the room would find a chance to reiterate the concept to the group and attribute it to the woman who brought it up initially.

Stanford management professor Maggie Neale refers to this strategy as forming a “posse” and explains it helps the person get the credit without “crowing” for it themselves.

Going back to the idea of work friends holding each other accountable, you might ask a work friend to privately warn you if you’re unintentionally undermining yourself with unnecessary apologies or unassertive language in meetings. You may identify that this is a weakness of yours, but it could be something you don’t hear yourself doing. Having someone point it out after the fact could help you kick the habit.

3. They can open doors and carve paths.

Your colleagues can be valuable professional resources, beyond just assisting with your assigned tasks when you’re in a pinch or helping you with miniutiae such as installing a printer.

Chances are, a co-worker has forwarded you information about a professional development or networking event, made an introduction to someone in your field or helped you publicize your work on social media. But you shouldn’t be passive when it comes to further opportunities for growth.

As McGoodwin suggests, a colleague at work who ranks above you might be willing to give you a crash course in how they got to where they are today. This can be especially helpful if you’re not getting sufficient feedback from your boss on how to rise up to the next level.

If you’re a social media coordinator, but you dream of one day being the director of social media at your company (or another organization), ask the director if they’ll allow you to shadow them for a day, or take time to walk you through their day-to-day responsibilities. In doing so, you’ll develop a better sense of what type of experience you might need to gain (or don’t actually need) to ascend to that level, McGoodwin says. Keep in mind that not everyone takes the same path, and instead, think about what unforseen steps you might take.

4. They can make you more creative and productive.

Many companies have designed their offices in an open layout, often with a goal of fostering collaboration through increased face-to-face interactions. That is, despite recent research that found this isn’t always the outcome.

The point is, companies that have open offices for this reason hope that the more co-workers talk amongst themselves, the more they’ll come up with new ideas that will help make the company more efficient and prosperous. But if employees aren’t clear on their expectations, they might be more prone to complaining to one another instead of brainstorming creatively, according to Gallup.

“However, when basic engagement needs are met, friendships can take on a powerful dynamic in which casual, friendly banter turns into innovative discussions about how the team or organization can thrive,” Gallup Employee Engagement and Well-Being Practice Manager Annamarie Mann writes for the Gallup blog.

Gallup research has revealed that when employees are set up to perform well and have a close friend at work, they’re less likely to be looking for jobs elsewhere. Meanwhile, they’re more likely to trust their colleagues, rate their own (and their team’s and organization’s) performance higher and take risks for the sake of innovation.

Related: Office Relationships Work a Lot Like Those With Friends and Family

5. They can provide a sounding board.

This one is perhaps the most intuitive benefit of having a close friend at work: Having someone to empathize with you can make you happier. As Gallup also highlights, people who have a close friend at work are less likely to report having a negative experience during the day such as worry, stress and feeling tired.

When you are stressed at work, venting to someone may help. Keeping negative emotions bottled up can be detrimental to your health physically, mentally and emotionally, according to Psychology Today contributor Leon F. Seltzer. Talking through your emotions can help restore your mental ability to think logically, and the listener friend might even give you advice you hadn’t considered on how to interpret or improve your circumstances.

That said, venting to work friends -- and having work friends in general -- can backfire. The following are five downsides to workplace friendships, based primarily on conclusions by Wharton School of Management Ph.D. candidate Julianna Pillemer and professor Nancy Rothbard in their recent Academy of Management Review paper, “Friends Without Benefits.”

1. They’re inescapable.

If you’re not a part of a friend clique at work, coming into the office is going to be an everyday reminder of high school.

If someone is left out of a work clique, that may lead them to think that their office is an unfair place or that they’re not valued, and they may act accordingly, Rothbard tells Quartz. They might disengage.

Employees and company leaders alike bear a responsibility to make sure no one is left out at work, and that people are making a variety of connections in professional settings, such as in meetings and projects, or during social events or lunch breaks. While it’s important not to force anything, inviting people to participate is key -- not just for the sake of your co-workers, but for the bottom line, too.

2. They can create power clashes.

Not only do you not get to choose your co-workers, but unlike in high school, the hierarchies aren’t imaginary. People have specific titles that may create confusing power dynamics when friendships arise.  

“When you do have a friendship across hierarchical lines, you’ve got to be much more vigilant about how it appears to other people,” Rothbard says in a video produced by Wharton in which she and Rothbard discuss their findings. “You must be very careful about process and what’s called ‘procedural justice.’” That means “using structures and processes and making your decision-making criteria explicit,” so no one will think a higher-ranking person is playing favorites if they side with their lower-ranking friend.

3. They can make you biased.

If you’re focused on not upsetting a friend by disagreeing with their opinions or rejecting their proposals, you might bypass what’s best for the company.

“It’s important to set expectations,” Pillemer says in the video. “You might be very close friends with somebody, but we have expectations that when we’re in a meeting, we are going to challenge each other. And we’re going to talk about this explicitly up front, so that you know I’m not doing this because I’m annoyed at you. I’m doing this because this is what our job is.”

4. They’re self-reinforcing.

Often, like-minded people become friends. That’s why it’s important not to rely too heavily on your work friend group when it comes to getting the actual work done. You might miss valuable perspectives that others in your company might have been able to bring to the table.

“Interacting with people who are similar to you and who you like a lot makes it hard sometimes to raise hard questions and to deliberate carefully,” Rothbard says.

The co-authors also explain that cliquey behavior can limit ideas from making their way outside of the clique to other parts of the organization where they may have value.

Related: 'Let's Be Friends': Bad Idea When That Person Is Your Employee?

5. They’re time-sucks.

If your friend always wants to chat and it distracts you from work, Rothbard has a simple tip: Schedule times to catch up.

“You might set up lunches with them, or have coffee, or have a certain time of the day,” Rothbard says in the video. “Those are important types of rules that you need to adopt with your friends to manage that friendship so that it doesn’t become individually taxing to you as well.”

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