In defense of work friendships
Earlier this summer, I read a post that I’ve been meaning to respond to for awhile: 3 Reasons Workplace Friendships are a Lie. As the title suggests, we’re told that it’s best not to form friendships at work, and that the friendships we do form aren’t real ones. Which I couldn’t disagree with more, for reasons that are emotional, practical and philosophical.
Before I launch into my rant, let me start by saying that everyone – everyone – should hope that the logic behind the “3 Reasons” piece is faulty, including its author. For better or worse, work is where we spend the majority of our waking hours. To declare the workplace a no-fly zone for any real friendships is one of the saddest suggestions I’ve ever heard.
That said, I can totally relate the concerns that drive this argument. I went to high school with the co-founders of my current company and I was (still am) even pretty close friends with one of them. When I started, I was terrified about how that connection might negatively affect success in my new gig. Would my coworkers assume I didn’t deserve to be there? Would our non-work history make it hard for them to give me candid feedback? Would I feel weird pushing back?
Going to work for and with friends was one of the best decisions I ever made. Since joining, I’ve formed many other friendships that I would challenge anyone to call a “lie.” We hang out on weekends, know the non-work details of each others’ lives, and even go on trips together. And it’s not only my social life that’s gotten a boost because of it – I do my job better because my work relationships are work friendships, and I’m pretty sure my coworkers would argue the same.
The best analogy I can think of is that of a sports team. Believe it or not, I was a hardcore jock back in high school. I rocked warm-ups at school at least three days a week, and wore my hair down about once a year (for realz — I didn’t even know I had curly hair until I went to college because it was always in a ponytail). Anyway, no one would have ever, ever questioned the legitimacy and value of the friendships that were formed between teammates. We supported each other, challenged each other. The inherent camaraderie in sports is visible all the way up the food chain, from tee ball to the MLB. It is an indisputable tenant of team sports that you are better individually and as a group because of it.
The same dynamics are at work at work. You share a common goal (let’s WIN the market, dammit!). You offer support, advice and even criticism. You push one another to bring your A-game, every day. Hell, even a measure of competitiveness is healthy if you’re all competing to have the biggest impact on overall success. It isn’t zero sum. Everyone is a champion when the team wins.
Sure, it is way more personal if it’s a friend telling you that what you did wasn’t good enough, or that you need to try harder. But work should be personal. If I fail, I’m not letting my job description down, I’m letting my colleagues – and myself – down. And if those colleagues also happen to be my friends, I’m going to work even harder to make sure I’m delivering my best. When it comes to performance, we’re not motivated by our paychecks. Nor are we driven by checking boxes on arbitrary quarterly goals. We push ourselves to earn self-respect and the respect of our peers. Friendship merely amplifies this.
And lest you think my experience is all rainbows and unicorns, I’ve also been in work environments where friendships have drained – rather than driven – energy and motivation. Coworkers who bitched so much about their jobs that it was impossible to enjoy mine. People I counted as friends who were happy to throw me under the bus. But these are the symptoms of a toxic work environment, not its causes. Strained friendships reflect broader organizational and cultural problems, just as healthy connections mirror organizational and cultural awesomeness.
I am excited to come to work every day. My abs are rock solid from nonstop laughter (okay, that’s a lie, but they should be!), I make “that’s what she said jokes” at meetings — but I also work harder and with more passion because I really care about the people I’m working with, and because I’m having fun doing it. Especially in a role where you’re sacrificing that elusive “work-life balance,” having an actual life at work is essential. I’m having more fun now than I was in college, and it’s not because I’m getting a paycheck (although that’s nice, too).
Hopefully, I will always be lucky enough to work with and for friends. Only four-or-so years out of college, I’m blown away by what many of my friends have already accomplished. Imagine where they’ll be in five years? Hopefully I’ll be there with them.
And if that form of friend-nepotism is wrong, I don’t want to be right.