Friendships at Work

In the WHYY radio interview, Friendships at Work, Sigal Barsade and Peter Bregman discuss why work friendships are important and how the attitude of one or more staff can lead to a collective office attitude (something individuals are not even aware of).

Sigal and Peter explain that it is important to have friendships at work not only for personal fulfillment but also for greater productivity and connectedness one’s job. They did acknowledge that boundaries regarding what is appropriate at work, different levels of seniority, and friendships affecting the ability to make effective work decisions are factors that may make friendship at work difficult.

Sigal specifically speaks about “emotional contagion” which means that the emotions of co-workers are contagious and one person who is specifically negative or stressed can lead other workers to feel stressed. They will likely attribute it to themselves, and not relate it back to their co-workers. Peter suggests that the best way to handle this is to first acknowledge their negative feelings as valid before countering with positive energy. Sigal disagrees – and I concur. She suggested instead that one maintain a California cool attitude and not get dragged into the negative energy at all because then you are giving it attention. I agree with her that, at least in my experience, when one is constantly negative it usually says more about the person than their circumstance. I had a staff member who was constantly victimized – she was picked on by her husband’s family, she was in poor health, she was depressed and had low self-esteem. After trying to make her feel better for awhile, I realized that it didn’t help to validate her feelings. It was bringing me down and I was wasting energy on her problems when I had enough of my own to worry about. I also realized that she didn’t want to change anything – her lifestyle, how she dealt with conflict, etc. She simply wanted attention and sympathy. Giving her situation wasn’t helping either of us, and it was in fact leading to overall negative feelings in our office suite.

Sigal and Peter both acknowledge that office friendship can often lead to office gossip, which can at the one-on-one level deepen a friendship but has a negative effect of office positivity overall. Peter suggests that it takes “emotional courage” to say something to the effect that gossip is inappropriate to discuss in the workplace and it won’t be accepted. I sort of disagree with this. I don’t think that gossip is appropriate but I don’t think that shutting it down will make the one who has emotional courage well-respected. I think it will just lead to the gossip being taken elsewhere and possibly make the person who showed emotional courage the target of gossip, because the gossiper will have hurt feelings and need validation.

I think the above speaks to an overall feeling (for me, at least) that while work friendships are important and beneficial, they cannot be forced. People generally have friendships with people who share similar views. But, we can’t choose our co-workers. I think true genuine friendships develop naturally and while this can certainly happen at work, it is really hard to have a true genuine friendship AND have work boundaries. You also need to be able to (to your true friends) complain about work! If your work friends are your true friends, this will contribute to a negative work environment and become an “emotional contagion.”

I also think that the current work culture at a lot of work environments does not support friendship at work. In a lot of offices, people are losing staff, doing more with less, are expected to answer email and be available at all times, and are getting a bigger and bigger workload. It may not be realistic, as Peter and Sigal suggest, to bring someone pretzels because they are having a bad day, or to take on a co-workers load because they are overwhelmed. I don’t see this happening as an act of friendship without causing resentment.

I think Peter and Sigal made very important points, and it is certainly important to be cognizant of how one is feeling in the workplace and how it is affected one’s staff and co-workers. But, I think the most important thing is to maintain one’s sense of self and being happy with that self, which will lead to a positive attitude, while trying to be respectful of the needs to others and friendly to everyone. I think that will help create a positive work environment while allowing one to stay within appropriate work boundaries. If one is positive about work and him/herself, I believe that friendships will naturally develop.


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