Conventional wisdom says to keep your personal friendships separate from your work relationships. Some companies supposedly even try to restrict friendships in the office. This idea seems, to me, similar to the naive strategy of keeping your life in balance by strictly limiting the hours you work. My belief about having friends in the office is similar to my belief about having satisfying work: both make it a lot easier to lead a happy, fulfilling life.
I don’t think it should be terribly surprising that friendships arise at work. When you have a shared purpose, common goals, perhaps common enemies, and you spend roughly half your waking time together, the ground is fertile for friendship to grow. If your company has a strong culture and selects people who are well-matched to that culture, friendships are all the more likely to form.
When people work with their friends, I believe, there is a greater sense of loyalty. In fact, several of my employees told me they’ve chosen to stay in Grand Rapids, or even returned from other cities, because their friends work for Atomic. It stands to reason that spending time with our friends makes us all happier. Our Atomic Object value mantra “share the pain” might very well have arisen out of a strong commitment to people who are more than just colleagues. No one wants to let their friends down, so standards are high and commitments are met. Also, it’s often easier to ask a friend, than a stranger, for help. Especially when done over a beer.
The social atmosphere of work can be a factor in hiring. That’s not just nice, but strategically critical these days with the technology skills shortage. While most socializing at Atomic is un-scheduled, we also have a Friday evening event once a month for employees, significant others, kids, clients, friends, and recruits. Every quarter we follow up our company meeting with a dinner for everyone and their significant others. And last year, for our tenth anniversary, the whole company had an awesome weekend together on Lake Michigan. I don’t necessarily think these events create friendships, but they do seem to nurture them.
I believe friendship can be a hugely powerful factor in building a positive company culture that results in sustainable success.
There are certainly some challenges to having interwoven webs of friendship in the office. For example, while friends are good, cliques are bad. Other issues that can arise are often more complex. At Atomic, we’ve wrestled with all of these questions:
- Can new employees establish friendships easily?
- If friendships are good, is it incumbent upon everyone to be friends?
- What happens if a friend at work isn’t doing well at work?
- Should you be biased towards hiring your friends, or blind to that consideration?
- Can friendships act like golden handcuffs and discourage a person who perhaps should leave the company from doing so?
- How do you resolve conflicts between your work interest and your friendship interest?
- How is work affected when friends hit a rough patch in their personal relationship?
- Should you evaluate candidates with an eye towards friendship, i.e. could I be friends with this person?
Managers, CEO’s, company founders, and other people in positions of authority are particularly challenged by friendships at work.
Tom Rath, from Gallup Research, found managers are more effective when they are friends with, or at least friendly with, their employees. Being friends with the boss is good for employees and for company results. But is it good for the boss?
As a boss and major decision maker, I control or influence important levers of power: project assignments, travel approval, standards, expectations, raises, and hiring. For a number of reasons, I need to treat everyone equally without regard to friendship. The most reliable way of doing that is to limit my friendships. Having friendly relationships, instead of true friends, achieves the company goals that Rath cites, while eliminating potential conflicts of interest or questions of fairness. Segregating my work life from my social life, however, creates what I think of as a highly ironic, founder-specific dilemma.
As the founder of a successful company with a strong culture, I’ve carefully selected and assembled a group of value-sharing, high-quality people with whom I’m going to spend a lot of my time. Of course, I’m likely to find myself making friends. I’d probably be friends with these people in whatever context I happened to meet them. And, of course, they develop friendships with each other.
You can choose to separate your social and work life. Maybe you need to maintain some emotional distance between yourself and the people you hire, manage, and fire. Or maybe you feel as though putting your net worth and friendship eggs in one basket is risky. Or maybe you notice that you can be a bore at parties because all you talk about is work. In any case, taking this route puts you in the ironic position of having created an awesome club that you can’t be a member of.
If, on the other hand, you indulge in friendships with your colleagues, then at some point you inevitably wonder and worry about the effect of your position and power on those relationships. The irony here is that, by even thinking these thoughts you are insulting the integrity of your friends and the people you are closest to at your company. Some friend you are!
I know that at times when I’m feeling tired or vulnerable, I’m susceptible to the dark thoughts of what my friendships at work mean, what might motivate them, and whether I’m naive to trust in them. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. I worry that I may be manipulated or patronized, and hence made to look foolish. I start thinking about the safer strategy of segregating my social and work lives, of taking some eggs out of the Atomic basket.
Then I take heart, and say “fuck that”.
(The strong language helps defeat the dark thoughts.)
I choose to live fully, in both work and friendships. I make things personal, and I get close to people I like. I pick colleagues and friends who have integrity, and I treat them accordingly. I am delighted by a life that lets me work and play with some of the same people. As Steve Jobs reminded us in his Stanford graduation speech, a life lived in fear of failure, embarrassment, or pain is a life lived less fully.
Life is short; death is certain. No surprise, my friendship choices expose me to both risks and rewards. By choosing to live this life, the only thing that should surprise me about dying is the timing.
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