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Managing the Dark Side of Workplace Friendships

Friendships at work are typically seen as being beneficial. They are expected to bring people closer, create a feel-good environment and make it fun to come to work. But friendships can also create complexities and tensions for those inside and outside the circle.

Nancy Rothbard, Wharton management professor, and Julianna Pillemer, a Wharton doctoral candidate whose research focuses on organizational behavior, say this is because of a conflict between the defining features of friendship and the defining features of an organization. In their paper, “Friends Without Benefits: Understanding the Dark Sides of Workplace Friendship,” Rothbard and Pillemer explore the dynamics and challenges of these relationships.

In a conversation with Knowledge@Wharton, Rothbard and Pillemer discuss different nuances of friendship at the workplace and how individuals and managers can prevent situations from turning toxic.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: All of us spend a lot of time at work and one would assume that having friendly relations with our co-workers is overall a good thing. What led you to explore the “dark side” of workplace friendships?

Julianna Pillemer: The inspiration for this paper came while I was taking a course with Nancy on Identity in Organizations. This research tapped a sweet spot in the gap I saw between research that has been done and observations in the real world. Most of the research that talked about how relationships outside of work influence your work was focused on family. There was almost no research looking at the influence of friendships. At that time, I was in my mid-20s. None of my friends were married. None of them had kids. Our conversations were constantly around friendships — how friendships at work were both enriching and life-giving and sometimes exceedingly complex resulting in people even wanting to switch organizations. I found this fascinating. I saw an opportunity to work with Nancy to dig into friendships at work more deeply, not only from this “it’s uniformly good” standpoint, but also looking at some of the challenges and complexities that accompany friendship.

Nancy Rothbard: What I think is so fascinating about this question is that of course we don’t mean to suggest that friendship is not a good thing. Friendship at work can be really valuable to people. But it’s not a uniformly good thing. There are complexities and tensions that arise because of a number of features of organizational life which make friendship more difficult to navigate in the workplace.

We explored the juxtaposition between some of these tensions with the features of organizational life. Friendship has an informal quality, a voluntary nature. It has aspects where the primary goals are relational and socio-emotional. It has a dynamic that involves communal types of exchange-based norms. It’s need-based; if I need you, you’re going to respond.

“Friendship at work can be really valuable to people. But it’s not a uniformly good thing.” –Nancy Rothbard

A lot of features of organizations, however, focus on things like formal roles. You can’t always control whom you’re put together with in a group. You have involuntary relationships that sometimes are necessitated. There are lots of instrumental goals that you need to pursue, not necessarily relational goals, to achieve organizational outcomes. And you have a lot of exchange-based or reciprocity norms that dominate, rather than need-based norms. These different features of organizational life sometimes clash with friendship. So, navigating how to be a good friend in an organizational context can be challenging. It also has implications for other aspects of the organization. Those were the things that we were curious to explore more deeply.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are some of the insights you gained as you went about your research?

Pillemer: One of the insights was what Nancy just described, which is that the defining features of friendship can be fundamentally in conflict with the defining features of organizational life. You see more and more organizations being proponents of friendship and encouraging friendship and bringing in foosball tables and doing all kinds of things that are supposed to bring people closer. We think that’s a good thing. It is also increasingly becoming an inevitable aspect of organizations. It is no longer okay to assume that you’ll show up to work and leave and not relate with people. So, one insight is that given their inevitability, we need to think about how to manage these relationships more effectively.

Rothbard: One of the things that’s fascinating is that while friendship can have a lot of individual benefits, too much friendship can lead to destruction in the workplace. It can lead to needing to engage with other people in a way that can be emotionally taxing to you, if it’s too deep. Sometimes you get caught up in some of the dynamics and it can be really distracting.

Another insight that we had was that when you are close friends with people, it can sometimes make it difficult to make hard decisions. There’s a lot of research which shows that in group decision-making kinds of situations, interacting with people who are similar to you and who you like a lot, makes it hard sometimes to raise hard questions and to deliberate carefully.

Knowledge@Wharton: What might be an example of that kind of a conflict?

Rothbard: For instance, if you’re trying to make a hard decision about where to allocate some of your budget. Different people might have different pieces of information or they may have different perspectives on it. If they’re friends, it can be hard to go against somebody who’s advocating really strongly for one particular position, because they might get mad at you. So you might hold back even though you believe there’s another direction that might be better for the organization.

Knowledge@Wharton: You might not want to offend a friend.

Rothbard: You don’t want to step on their toes. Sometimes that causes us to pull back and not really hash things out so that we can really see which of these options might be better. There is quite a bit of research that shows that people do pull back in those kinds of circumstances, and so having these close bonds can be challenging.

What we also argue in this paper is that when you’re really close with people –truly, truly close and at an extreme level of friendship — that gets ameliorated a little bit. Because, you know, you fight with your family, you fight with your friends and you can make up with them, and it’s okay. It’s the middle ground, where you’re kind of friends with people, but your relationship isn’t so secure that it can withstand the fight, that you pull back.

There’s a little bit of a caveat there. There’s a curvilinear effect that we’ve described that we think is really important to consider. There’s another category of challenges that we highlight in the paper, which is that sometimes when there are a lot of close friendship relationships in an organization, it becomes visible to other people. And if there are certain people who are close and other people who are not close, then the people who are on the outside looking in can get really upset. It’s the classic clique type of situation, like the high school cafeteria. Sometimes strong friendships can have this inadvertent, negative effect — not on the people within the friendship, but on the other people in the organization who feel excluded.

“The defining features of friendship can be fundamentally in conflict with the defining features of organizational life.” –Julianna Pillemer

Pillemer: One of our core insights was that when friendships are considered to be uniformly positive, it’s often from the perspective of an individual. It feels awesome to connect with people. It probably makes you want to show up to work. It makes things fun. But you need to consider other levels of analysis, where it might not be great for group outcomes. It might not be great for organizational outcomes. It’s important to take a more holistic look at the impact of what might seem like a great individual relationship and how that can cascade in negative ways.

Rothbard: People need to think about this carefully. If you’re in a close friendship, you need to be aware of the impact that’s having on other people. You need to be aware that other people might be feeling excluded. You need to think about being more deliberately inclusive of other people. Things like that are important to keep in mind because a lot of times you’re in this bubble of the friendship and you’re not aware of the impact it’s having on other organizational outcomes.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you see the role of technology in all this, because technology seems to have had the effect of blurring the boundaries between personal and professional relationships. For example, a number of my colleagues are also my friends on social media. Is this good or bad — or both?

Pillemer: It’s interesting how you said “blurring the boundaries,” because that’s the language that people usually use when they talk about the blurring of professional and personal boundaries. When we thought about what the correct analogy was, we came up with this idea of “boundary transparency,” where social media provides this window into your personal life, whether it’s with your kids or the stuff you’re doing on the weekend, or God forbid, someone wants to go back and look at what you were doing 10 years ago. It’s something that didn’t exist maybe five or 10 years ago. It is the floodgate of disclosure in this different form — in this multimedia form — that can bring you closer, but also maybe lead to some discoveries that you kind of wish you didn’t know.

Rothbard: What we feel is really critical as an insight about social media and technology vis-a-vis friendship at work is that it’s amplifying a lot of these dark sides. It’s also amplifying the positives. It’s allowing us to connect to people more deeply, right? But that also leads to some inadvertent challenges that we’ve already been discussing and highlights some of them. For example, when you’re connected to somebody on social media it affords you a window into their personal life. But it also makes it more difficult for you to tailor some of those disclosures in a way that is more targeted to the person you’re talking to.

If I post my pictures from my vacation on social media, and I’m connected with people at work, they all know that I was in France on spring break and that I had my kids there. They’ll be aware that I wasn’t working for the last week. Maybe somebody was really annoyed at me because they needed me for something, and they think I was just, “La-la-la,” off in France on vacation.

That’s a very bland example of what people might post. People also post opinions, and those opinions may not be shared by everyone. So these kinds of disclosures on social media and through the kinds of connection technologies that we have available are making it more difficult to navigate friendships in more one-on-one ways, because you have this disclosure to a broader group of people that’s not as targeted.

Pillemer: Nancy mentioned that social media amplified the specific dark sides that we came up with. For example, she discussed the high school cafeteria — you can see in person the cliques that are forming and where you stand. Social media is a whole new [clique] where people are posting photos. Certainly I’ve experienced — and I’m sure others have experienced – [thinking,] “Oh, these co-workers went and hung out without me.” You might not have even seen that clique in person in the office. So that’s an example of how social media can amplify some of these dark sides.

“If you’re in a close friendship, you need to be aware of the impact that’s having on other people.” –Nancy Rothbard

Rothbard: We want to emphasize that it’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes when you have a window into somebody’s personal life you get to know them more as a person, and you have context for what’s going on with them. You may understand that they were slow to respond on email because they’ve just posted that they had a family member who was ill. You may have much more insight, and you can give them a break, because you have more understanding of what’s going on in their life.

Knowledge@Wharton: Based on everything you’ve said so far, how do you think managers should enhance the benefits of workplace friendships, while managing the downside? What would be your advice to them?

Pillemer: First, just be aware that these challenges can arise. If you’re the CEO of a startup and you want to create a collegial culture, you might also want to put some things in place to ensure that these dark sides don’t occur. For example, instead of people choosing their own teams, you can have people from different areas of the organization on the teams to guard against challenges with decision-making. At the design firm IDEO, they have cross-functional lunches or events once a week, where they encourage [engagement between] people who usually won’t interact with each other because they might not be as similar. This is to ensure that they are not getting a clique silo effect. So again, we’re not saying you shouldn’t encourage friendship, but an awareness of the dark sides and how to guard against them structurally within the organization is a really great thing that managers can do.

Rothbard: It’s also important for individuals to think about how they interact with friends and set boundaries. It’s important to set expectations. You might be very close friends with somebody, but we have expectations that when we’re in a meeting, we are going to challenge each other. And we’re going to talk about this explicitly up front, so that you know I’m not doing this because I’m annoyed at you. I’m doing this because this is what our job is. A second thing that you might want to think about from an individual perspective in terms of setting some boundaries is that while you might be great friends with somebody, maybe you set times to catch up with them about various things, rather than having them interrupt you when you’re trying to get your own work done. So, you might set up lunches with them or have coffee or have a certain time of the day where you do catch-ups. Those are important types of rules that you need to adopt with your friends to manage that friendship so that it doesn’t become individually taxing to you as well.

Knowledge@Wharton: Was there anything that surprised you as you went about your research?

Rothbard: What surprised us is that there has been so little done on friendship at work. There was one study that we found very interesting. It looked at how friendship was important but it had costs in terms of being emotionally taxing to people. That study helped us to think about both the positives and the negatives of friendship at work. But there were very few studies that explicitly looked at friendship. It almost seemed like it was a taboo for people to be even asking this question. And that was fascinating to us, because friendship is really all around us at work. We spend a tremendous amount of our time at work. And nowadays, with connection technology and online social media, the line between work and personal is becoming even more blurred. Friendship is really an inevitable part of the workplace, and the fact that there was so little that we found on it was surprising to us.

Pillemer: Also, the work that did exist didn’t dig into the complexities of what friendship is, what it entails, what differentiates it from, say, a mentoring relationship or just a casual acquaintance. So part of the work that we did in this paper was to say, “Well, what are the core features that differentiate friendship from other kinds of friendly relationships or mentoring relationships? And what are the unique challenges that arise from those features?”

There’s been very little distinction between levels of friendship like closeness, maturity and status differentials in friendship. We tried to touch upon that in our paper to ask how does, for example, a friendship between a boss and subordinate differ from a peer relationship? How does a friendship where you’ve known this person for 10 years differ from a friendship that’s burgeoning in the first week?

“Given their inevitability, we need to think about how to manage these relationships more effectively.” –Julianna Pillemer

We saw our core contribution as digging into those complexities and seeing friendships differently. There are all these different flavors of friendship that can really influence outcomes.

Rothbard: What’s also really important is when you do have a friendship across hierarchical lines, you’ve got to be much more vigilant about how it appears to other people. You must be very careful about process and what’s called “procedural justice.” Using structures and processes and making your decision-making criteria explicit becomes very, very important when you have people who are friends across hierarchical lines, because other people looking in are judging. They are usually looking at it and thinking that the person who is the subordinate is getting favoritism. So managing that is critical.

Knowledge@Wharton: As you were going about your study, what were some questions that came up for future research?

Pillemer: There’s so little research and so much more to be done in this area. One area is that workplaces are changing, but still built on the idea of Western educated, predominantly white male cultures. We think a promising future direction is to think about the individual and the organizational culture of the people that are in the business and how that impacts outcomes of friendships. For example, women might be more communal in their modes of relating and be able to navigate this tension more effectively or perhaps not. We don’t really know. Similarly, cultures that are known to be more communal in their modes of relating, like Asian cultures, Latin American cultures, might have a different approach to an individualistic American organization.

Rothbard: It will also be interesting to look at aspects of social media and technology. That is a really important and new way of relating that we don’t understand very well. There is also the question of authenticity. How do you relate authentically to people, and when do they perceive you to be genuine — somebody who is yourself at work? This also impacts friendship and how that plays out in the workplace.

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