Christa Ludlow, Principal Consultant of Weir Consulting, discusses the dark side of workplace friendships. She asks: Is it possible to be too friendly with the people we work with? Some managers feel that they need to be best friends with the people they manage; in fact, this can be a sign that they lack the essential skills a manager needs, she adds. Christa will present on the topic, Managing Difficult Colleagues or Bosses, at the CPD Compulsory Units for all Lawyers Conference on Tuesday, 12 March.
Many of us make friendships at work that last for years. We spend a lot of time with our work colleagues and they know a lot about us. But is it possible to be too friendly with the people we work with?
Here are four problems that can arise from friendships at work.
Some managers feel that they need to be best friends with the people they manage. In fact, this can be a sign that they lack the essential skills a manager needs.
As consultants specialising in workplace culture and grievances, a colleague and I were asked to review the culture and engagement in a work team which was experiencing high turnover, complaints and stress leave. On the surface the manager appeared generous and likeable. It emerged however, that she dispensed personal favours rather than making decisions on merit and encouraged her “friends” to isolate and ignore the staff who did not respond to her management style or were “different.” Even some of the people who received favours were uncomfortable with this and felt guilty as a result, while the staff who were left out complained about bullying and favouritism.
I have investigated other workplaces where favouritism has led to deep dysfunction, subversion of proper work processes and bullying. Of course these were extreme cases, but a common theme was who had powerful friends, who was “in” and who was “out”.
The desire to be liked can be strong. But managers have a responsibility to make decisions that are fair and based on relevant facts, not personal preference.
Following work colleagues on Facebook can help grow your work relationships. You can see what interests or experiences you share and discuss them.
But the posts you are happy sharing on Facebook with your best friends or family might not be the same as what you would like your co-workers to see, depending on the level of friendship. You might want to check your privacy settings or select who should see certain posts.
If an embarrassing post slips through the net, a co-worker might share it with others without your consent, which could lead to repercussions at work. We’ve all heard of the employee who took a “sickie” but was found out from a Facebook post about hangover.
If you agree to befriend a colleague on Facebook before you know them well, you might find out from their posts that they have attitudes or activities that you don’t like or which offend you. So it’s a good approach to get to know the person first, before you say yes.
3. Conflict of interest
A conflict of interest will arise when you have two interests which are incompatible. For example when you are asked to sit on an interview panel for a job that your best friend at work is applying for. The competing interests are wanting to help your friend get the job, and wanting to make the best decision for the business.
The usual way to deal with this is to declare the conflict of interest up front. Tell the panel members that your friend is one of the applicants. The panel can then decide if this conflict of interest can be managed so that you remain on the panel, or someone else should take your place.
It may seem illogical, but when the members of a work group get on very well with each other the performance of the group may suffer. This happens when the members want to maintain the cohesion between the members of the group and so discourage activities which could damage it, leading to a phenomenon called “groupthink”. Groupthink has been blamed for decisions which led to the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion and the May 1996 Mount Everest expedition disaster in which five people died.
When groupthink is in operation, groups can ignore warning signs, downplay their own doubts, put pressure on a member who might be “disloyal” and show bias when processing information.
This can lead to defective decision making. For example, the APRA inquiry into the conduct of the Commonwealth Bank in 2018 found that the excessively collegial and high trust culture among the bank’s leadership led to over-confidence and lack of questioning by those in charge.
How to avoid groupthink? Suggestions include: having someone play devil’s advocate, introducing diversity into the group, encouraging people to put forward information and ideas that might contradict the prevailing view, and addressing the causes of cohesion, which can include anxiety or external stress.
To sum up
While it’s great to have good friends at work, to really perform well you need collaboration skills rather than social skills. Learning how to collaborate with people who are your colleagues but not your friends is the key to success.
Christa Ludlow is a lawyer with over 20 years’ experience in employment law and administrative law, and a qualified coach and mediator. She is a Principal Consultant with WEIR Consulting. WEIR provides workplace conflict resolution, investigation, coaching and training services to clients in the public and private sectors. Contact Christa at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find WEIR Consulting on Facebook and LinkedIn.