Office Friendships: Managing the Challenges

On-the-job friends can keep you sane—unless things turn sour. Here’s how to handle the most common challenges.

Unlike other breakups, those between co-workers rarely involve a confrontation—or a clean resolution, according to Patricia M. Sias, PhD, of Washington State University. Instead, these friends pull back, replacing closeness and intimacy with a business-only efficiency that Sias calls depersonalization. “This is someone you have to see not only again but every day, 8 hours a day,” she says. “So people find it easier to just drift away.”

But workplace friendships “are inherently rewarding for people,” Sias explains. “You go to work not just for the money but because you get to be with people you like.” Having pals at work makes you a better worker. Research shows that “work friends exchange more and higher quality information than do just superficial-level co-workers,” she adds.

To nurture friendships in the workplace—or, just as important, to salvage one that is eroding—you need to understand the dynamics affecting these relationships, Sias says. Here’s how to manage an office friendship under stress.

When a friend gets a promotion

It’s tough to remain best buds when you find yourself suddenly setting your former pal’s salary. Researchers suggest negotiating a new understanding: “Look, you know I’ve been promoted, and I worry what it’s going to do to our relationship. I want to be friends, but I’m going to be required to do things that may threaten our relationship.”

If your friend accepts that, you may be able to work out guidelines. For example, you might agree not to discuss company business as openly as you once did. And you might rule out company gossip entirely.

If your friend was promoted, congratulate her, then tell her you realize her new responsibilities may require some changes in your relationship. Assure her that you don’t expect special treatment. Discuss how her promotion might change your working relationship and devise a neutral way for both of you to address issues as they come up.

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When a friend is too needy

You want to be understanding when a friend is overwhelmed by a personal problem. Still, Sias has found, empathy can backfire. Women are vulnerable to becoming sounding boards for co-workers, says Janie Harden Fritz, PhD, an associate professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Duquesne University. “Women have been socialized to be nice and to listen—to be active, responsive listeners,” says Fritz.

Some workplaces cultivate what Fritz calls a false sense of family, which can create a double bind. You’re supposed to care about one another, yet you’re supposed to get your work done, too. One solution, she says, is to redirect the conversation: “I understand how you feel, but I really need to finish this report by the end of the day.” At work, “the task is primary, so other things have to be secondary,” Fritz explains.

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When roles collide

Co-workers who become friends should anticipate that at some point there’s going to be a conflict, Sias says. Friends give and expect unconditional support. “At work, though, we are expected to be objective,” she says. “Those two roles conflict with one another, and that’s going to lead to problems.”

Discussing the problem openly can be crucial to preserving the friendship—and can allow both parties to acknowledge that the difficulty comes from blending the roles of friend and co-worker, not from antipathy or lack of caring.

But when a friend rejects honest dialogue, it may be time to throw in the towel. “A relationship does take two people,” Sias says. “If one is not committed to it, there’s not a whole lot you can do to force the issue.”

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