Can (and Should) You Be Friends with Colleagues?

 Meta description preview:Is it possible to become -- or remain -- friends with someone with whom you have a professional relationship? Possible, yes, but sometimes its complicated.

Here’s a challenging one, with no easy answer. Do you make your work life harder if you become friends (non-romantically) with a colleague or colleagues? Does it become harder to do your job when your professional relationships are overlaid with personal friendships?

I think the answer is “maybe.” Adding a personal component to a professional relationship does, by definition make it more complicated because you are adding another element to the relationship. The more aspects a relationship has the more potentially complicated it can be. But how bad or risky or inadvisable is it?

As with most things, the only appropriate answer is really, “it depends.” Becoming friendly with a colleague can work very well, if everyone understands that the basis of the relationship is work-related. The work component never goes away, and when all involved understand that we’re friends, yes, but first we are colleagues, we have the basis for a functional dynamic.

This means that unlike another personal relationship, unencumbered by the work dynamic, there are lines that can’t be crossed. Friends can joke around with each other, be inappropriate on some things, call each other out on things… but when there is a work component, those lines are in a very different place. And everyone needs to remember that always.

In my experience, developing friendship with a colleague makes work much more bearable. I would find it boring if I never got to know anything about a colleague.  But at the same time, I’ve found that there needs to be clear understanding when the work aspect is “on” or “off”, and even when it is “off” it is never completely off.

True story from a client company of The Latimer Group. Two people had been working together for years, quite effectively and famously. They were known as a real dynamic duo. One was a man, one was a woman, and there was never any hint of romantic involvement. In fact, both were happily married. Eventually, however, the dynamic changed a bit, and it became more of a professional competitive dynamic between them. The respect that was borne from the friendship withered, and eventually the baseline professional level of respect started to wither as well.

The coup de grace occurred when one gave the other some feedback that was not expected or wanted at the moment, and the response to the feedback was harsh, rude and borderline profane.

It was clear at this point that the friendship was over, and that the professional relationship also was at risk. To make a long story short, the professional relationship continued to wither away and eventually changes were made.

The lesson here is that becoming friendly with colleagues is fine, and can make work more bearable. But it only works if both sides always remember that there are lines that cannot be crossed. In the example above, the friend who responded harshly to the feedback felt that the friendship gave extra license to react that harshly. But the prevailing opinion from those who evaluated it was unanimous: all agreed that the harsh, rude response is never appropriate, whether you are friendly or not.

I continue to take an interest in my colleagues’ lives. But I am acutely aware of the lines that should never be approached, let alone crossed.

This is a big issue for many, and I would love to hear other opinions on how you handle it.

Have a great day.

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.