The dark side of friendship at work

Making and developing workplace friendships meets the management imperative for a feel-good environment and gives employees a sound reason to get out of bed in the morning. But friendships can also turn poisonous, generating unexpected difficulties and creating a toxic atmosphere...

Is the influence of friendships on the workplace a taboo subject? When Nancy Rothbard and Julianna Pillemer looked at this rarely examined topic, they discovered that the defining features of friendship and organizational life are not closely aligned. Friendships are voluntary, informal, and need-based in nature… the opposite of the characteristics of organizational life. The two areas can, therefore, end up clashing.

Relationships can make it difficult for employees to resolve conflicts, change jobs, participate in healthy debate or make hard decisions – or even lead them to sidestep the issues altogether. In addition, colleagues who are not a part of a particular circle may feel ostracized. Last of all, although social networks open a window to a certain kind of intimacy and friendship, they may also have the effect of amplifying their dark sides.

What can you do to prevent the dark side of friendship from showing its face when the feel-good factor is the order of the day in your team? First off, check that you are aware of the dynamics, then set up a process and structures to ensure that these informal relations do not skew conflict resolution or decision-making. This will also avoid silos and any form of ostracism. Sensitize all members of your staff to the dark side: they themselves must introduce processes for ensuring that friendships and performance at work are not mutually exclusive.

Are these self-evident truths? Not really: everyone knows about these things but few pay attention to them, and everyone is caught out at least once.

To learn more: Managing the Dark Side of Workplace Friendships, Podcast and article with Nancy Rothbard and Julianna Pillemer, Knowledge @ Wharton, April 24, 2018.