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Can (And Should) You Be Friends with Colleagues?

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.

At The Latimer Group, our individual Coaching services are highly customized and designed to help you achieve your specific goals. Typical engagements focus on developing skill sets in Leadership Communications, Public Speaking, and Executive-Level Business Presentations. To learn more, e-mail us at info@TheLatimerGroup.com

4 responses to “Can (And Should) You Be Friends with Colleagues?”

  1. MarieT says:

    This is a great point – some people do not know how to switch it off and on and indeed the work relationship never stops. What happens when you hang out outside work even if it has nothing to do with work will follow you Monday morning when you come to work tired. I have tried it early on in my career and only worked with a selected few. I do not “try” anymore. I keep it friendly but that it. We can become closer friends when I change company.

  2. Melody V says:

    I believe there is no one right answer. Each person should decide based on their personality, what works. For me personally, I do best to separate my professional and personal life for the most part. I state for the most part, as I do have a few trusted friends within the company where we are not aligned, work together professionally or would we ever. This approach is most likely adopted from my early years of management experience, it works for me. I am certainly friendly & kind to all people and care about what is going on in their life. I will participate in team events sponsored by the company or department. Good read, thank you!

  3. Dean Brenner says:

    Great comments! I agree that it is largely situational. The choice to become friends comes with some big things to be careful of.

    Thanks for engaging!

  4. Josh K says:

    The further I get in my career, the less work friends I seem to have. Getting promoted and being in a client facing role are two causes I’ve identified for having less work friends.

    After being promoted and changing companies a few times, my approach to work relationships is still warm and trusting but, as a leader, I try to develop relationships that center on the work and not so much on what we have in common outside the office.

    Moving from an in-house to an outsourced roll puts me in front of a client very frequently. I’ve had to become more disciplined around the client, listening to them but not trying to spark a friendship, even when the talk becomes personal. I’m in there to do a job and perform a service and the lines are different than when I’m working with a colleague at the same employer.

    It’s weird though because I still stay in touch with friends that I met through work almost 20 years ago. Maybe it has something to do with what stage of your career you’re in. It would be an interesting study, seeing if one’s propensity towards entering into work friendships correlates to one’s years in their field or seniority level.

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