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According to Gallup, the experts in measuring workplace engagement, if you have a friend at work your level of engagement is likely to be much higher than someone who doesn’t. Research has also suggested that for people who are highly placed in organisations, the social ties that they develop outside of work can be very helpful as they become more widely known.
All this points to a growing awareness that developing friendships at work is actually a productive activity. It is not purely social (although it obviously has social aspects), but brings palpable benefits to both the individual and to the organisation.
Friendship and ‘social undermining’
Friendship is also an important theme of our research into competence and conflict in teams, more specifically the social undermining of highly-competent individuals by their colleagues. The impetus behind the research is something called Social Ledger Theory, which examines the idea that both positive and negative relationships are important in workplace environments.
We tend to see positive relationships very clearly but spend less time trying to understand negative relationships, and Social Ledger Theory suggests that the interaction of both positive and negative relationships is actually where the most interesting ideas about relationships in workplaces come from.
What we set out to do was to understand more about this social undermining and the behaviours that result from it. In addition, we sought to investigate the extent to which a targeted individual’s friendships with other team members can mitigate negative behaviours.
When we assessed friendship, we asked people a basic question about whether they would go to this person for social support or they would spend time outside of work with them. Then we measured, on a Likert scale, the strength of the friendship, and where they saw themselves on the friendship scale in terms of how strong it was.
The initial findings suggest that friendship has an important and positive impact when it comes to buffering negative relationship situations in the workplace. Whilst we were specifically looking at high flyers and those considered highly competent, we can make the more general deduction that if a friendship buffer is in place, where there is workplace conflict, that it will positively impact individual performance and that this will in turn help the performance of the team as a whole. We are now conducting the same study in a field site for the second phase of the research.
Benefits and drawbacks
The practical implications of our research can be illustrated by the example of one company I’m currently working with. They take a siloed approach to product development, with multiple product lines and employees in these product lines who don’t talk to each other, despite the fact that they may be doing really similar work. They are reinventing the wheel – sometimes in three different areas at once – because workers don’t know that people in the other areas are working on a similar problem.
Cross-functional friendships would be a very simple way to share information and engage people across different strands of the business. In other words, friendship is a great communication and knowledge-sharing tool. And it costs nothing.
Friendship and trust
Another idea that is important around friendship ties is the idea of trust. Friendship ties build trust, and when people have trusting relationships with the people that they work with, this tends to lead to things like job satisfaction and sense of wellbeing at work. Such relationships also seem to encourage individuals to be more cooperative with the people that they work with and more willing to engage in organisational citizenship behaviours. These are the voluntary things that we do at work that aren’t really part of our job description – such as when we help somebody out because we know that they need help, even though we wouldn’t necessarily be required to.
Friendship and workplace engagement
Of course, like anything else, friendships in the workplace can have a downside. For example, it has been shown that detachment can occur if someone has a strong friendship with somebody who then leaves the organisation. This can mean that they reduce their level of engagement to their work or to that organisation, as what they saw as one of the major positive benefits of working there no longer exists. Yet another example of how employers can underestimate the impact of friendship at work.
This article was based on the preliminary findings of the following research: Payal Nangia Sharma, Assistant Professor of Management & Global Business, Rutgers Business School, New Jersey and Suzanne K. Edinger, Assistant Professor in Organisational Behaviour, Nottingham University Business School, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down: a social networks lens on competence and conflict in teams.”