Why Can’t We Be Friends?

puppies kittenFriendship… has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.
C. S. Lewis

You may be one of the people who claim not to need friends at work. “We don’t need to be best friends; we just need to be able to work together,” you mutter after leaving an unproductive or uncomfortable meeting. That may be true, but having people around you that you like and trust can make your career much more successful. Keep in mind that coworkers are rarely completely neutral in their opinions of people.  If you have a strong personality, you may have more people in your negative opinion column than your positive.

There are many reasons to build relationships and trust in the workplace. No one can perform in an office environment in complete isolation; we need other people. Even if you’re a soloist in your actual job duties, you’ll eventually need IT support, payroll questions answered, or your meeting room scheduled. Friendship may be optional, but good working relationships are essential.

Here’s are the factors that influence how likely you are to have a good relationship with someone at work (based on Enlightened Office Politics by Michael and Deborah Dobson.)

Trust: Past behavior is the best indicator of how someone will act. You can’t demand trust; it must be earned, especially after a hiccup in the relationship. Trust is a very emotionally loaded word, and should be used judiciously when dealing with other people. Saying “I trust you to handle this” implies more than simply “I think you’re competent.” It means that I think you are a good person and that you have my interests at heart. On the other end of the spectrum, starting any sentence with “I don’t trust you to…” is a HUGE deal, no matter how trivial the rest of the sentence is.

There are people who claim to like people they don’t trust, but I almost never believe them. For me, the word “like” implies a relaxed relationship, and I can’t relax around people I don’t trust. I suspect that you really believe you’re far enough down their enemies list to escape any negative behavior splash. (Good luck with that.)

Common Interests: Whether it’s personal interests or career goals, knowing that you care about the same things helps a relationship grow and prosper. That’s why small talk was invented. The more often you have a “me, too” moment with someone, the likelier you are to feel like friends. “You love ‘The Walking Dead?’ Me, too!” That small connection causes both parties to light up, and the feeling carries over to your next connection.  Finding things that you have in common give you a basis for pleasant interactions, and may even lead to real friendship.

Common Goals: If you share an interest in a project or a company objective, you can also form bonds with team members. In other words, your common interests can be professional rather than personal.  You may share a specialty skill set, be assigned to a team or project together, or share a passion for the company’s customers or products.

Factions: Almost everyone in a company is part of a team, but they may also be perceived as part of a faction (which can be defined as “a small, organized, dissenting group within a larger one, especially in politics.”) Just as tribes have always formed alliances or made war, tribes within a company may have long histories of cooperation or enmity. Your perceived alliances may override any of your personal behavior or attempts at friendship.

You can see examples of factions in the most cohesive of teams. Recently, I was speaking to a group of veterans from the U.S. Navy, and I referred to one of them as a “Brown Shoe.” It got a big laugh at the time, but the division between the “Black Shoe” and “Brown Shoe” Navy is a real issue that has been contentious throughout history.

For those of you who have never served, here is the origin of these terms. U.S. Navy sailors traditionally wore black boots aboard naval ships, which burned coal (and made black a great choice for hiding soot.) When the first naval aviator volunteers came to San Diego in 1911 to be trained on the newly invented “flying machines,” they had a real problem with dust on their standard issue black shoes.  They solved the problem by making brown shoes a part of an aviator’s official uniform, and naval aviators have been wearing them ever since.  Even something as simple as shoe color became a visible tribal badge distinguishing the aviators (the glamorous “fly boys”) from the blue collar shipboard sailors. The tradition is over 100 years old, but can still be a sore point for some personnel.

(Full disclosure: I married a brown shoe and traveled with him throughout his career. I know Brown Shoes.)

Do you have factions in your company culture? How do they impact relationships/

Next: Mapping Relationships at work

4 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Be Friends?

  1. Jodi

    Playing nice in the workplace can tend to be a “job”. If there is an issue…This is usually when a team-mate is trying to outshine all others in my opinion.


  2. […] I’ve been reading a few articles about friendship in the workplace. […]


  3. […] a previous post, I wrote about factors that affect relationships at work. When you understand where people stand […]


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