Why friendship has a big role to play at work

Santiago Iniguez

Dean IE Business School

“Friends are God’s way of apologizing for our families,” wrote the great American playwright Tennessee Williams. And as an important source of happiness in our lives, much of which we spend working, it’s worth exploring how friendship can play a role in our professional lives.

Or so you might think; in fact most experts recommend caution, saying we need to differentiate clearly between work and friendship and to remember that the relationships we create within each sphere are subject to very different rules, and that generally, it’s not a good idea to mix the two. Friendship is, or should be, by its nature disinterested, they say, while the relationship between colleagues at work is essentially about improving business, productivity, and efficiency, regardless of how we feel about each other.

At the same time, friendship in the workplace can generate conflicts of interest, and in some cases lead to cronyism, whereby decisions are often conditioned by the need to keep friends and family happy, rather than by merit, fairness, or the financial consequences.

Notwithstanding, our own experience, intuition, and some research shows that friendship in the workplace can have positive effects.

Adam Smith, the father of liberal capitalism, explained that the transition from a pastoral economy, based on family interests, toward a business-related society means that its members must stop depending on the close family and establish relationships based on their own interest and their talent. The relationships we form through economic exchange and business are voluntary, reflecting our innate propensity to “truck, barter, and exchange”, as Smith put it. (1)

Smith’s 18th century contemporary, the Scottish economist and thinker David Hume, argued in similar vein that the growth of trade and the markets widened the circle of people we could meet, and thus the number of potential friends we could make. (2)

This cosmopolitan conception of friendship, based on trade and business, is not necessarily solely utilitarian, say Smith and Hume, although it can result in reciprocal benefits because it is the outcome of free will, and based on trust and the qualities of our friends. Needless to say, like all personal contact, it requires trust and equanimity over the long term, something that cannot be reduced to utilitarian interests. Furthermore, a lot of friendships are formed as a result of doing business or working with others, and last over time in parallel with a working relationship.

Business and working relationships can create shared interests, visions, projects, risks, and mean spending a lot of time with another person, all of them sound bases for friendship. I am a firm believer in the role of trade in overcoming poor relations between nations, and can be an antidote to political mistakes. We have seen this time and again at IE Business School, where our MBA programs attract a diverse range of participants.

At my University, for example, our student body is made up of 106 different nationalities, representing a wide range of cultures, different world views and creeds. Our intake is also diverse in terms of gender. I have seen how students taking part in a discussion about business, or when working on a case study, usually come up with similar solutions, regardless of where they come from. This meeting of the minds when it comes to finding solutions to problems even applies to culturally sensitive issues such as ethical dilemmas or problems where custom plays a key role in decision-making. Management thinking, the search for value generation or business solutions encourages understanding, and therefore friendship among participants.

So if doing business is a great way to make friends, why does it seem that we have fewer and fewer friends at work? Adam Grant of Wharton Business School cites a survey showing that the number of Americans who think it is important to have friends at work as fallen over time: 54 percent in 1976, and 41 percent in 2006. (3) Cultural factors can also play a big role in this. Another survey shows that only 32 percent of Americans regularly invite workmates over to their house, while in Poland and India, the figure is 66 percent and 71 percent respectively. (4)

Grant puts this down to a number of things. The so-called protestant work ethic, rooted in the Calvinist tradition, which has had a huge influence on Anglo-Saxon societies, sees social interaction in the workplace as interfering with getting the job done. We have also grown to see friendships in the workplace as temporary, given that more and more of us regularly move on, up, or away to other posts and sectors: long-term employment is increasingly a thing of the past. At the same time, more and more of us work from home or have flexible hours so we can attend to family needs.

But the fact remains that plenty of surveys confirm the positive effects of creating relationships at work. Some 51 percent of workers survey in a recent Gallup poll said having good friends at work motivated them to work harder and to identify with their company’s mission, compared to the 10 percent who have no good friends at work. (5) There is also a growing body of work arguing that having friends at work improves an individual’s performance, reduces stress, increases cooperation, trust and communication, thus helping people think more positively, as well as reducing uncertainty and anxiety, leading employees to stay with the company longer.

In which case, what can we do to encourage camaraderie and friendship in the workplace?

1.Develop a shared organizational culture. First of all, we need to detail the circumstances that can help create the right environment within which camaraderie can flourish, (7) which means an inspiring corporate culture shared by everybody, one of the CEO’s most important tasks. Sometimes, camaraderie can be confused with fun, which has led some corporations to create open-plan office spaces, even installing ping pong tables, as well as providing chillout rooms and kitchens to facilitate better contact within the workforce. More and more companies realize that a pleasant working environment is important, but we shouldn’t forget that a company’s culture is of greater transcendence, reflecting as it does its values, strategy, objectives, how it recognizes and rewards employees, as well as the philosophy of the company. The organizational culture is reflected in the narrative, in the messages and attitudes shared by the workforce, and is what really holds an organization together.

For this culture to be effective means systematically applying it to the decisions the company makes, as well as communicating those values to all stakeholders, and particularly employees. This kind of culture cannot be implanted simply through decree, as it were; it has to be something that is an integral part of every aspect of life in the company and that over time begins to shape how people think, not unlike the way that water can change a rock’s form.

A company’s organizational culture brings employees closer, it invites them to share their hopes, dreams, and objectives, and to work together to achieve the company’s goals. This sharing of ideals is the ideal way to generate friendships, which doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody working for the company thinks the same or shares the same tastes. There are plenty of companies and institutions with solid shared cultures that have a highly diverse workforce.

2.Encourage integration between different departments. It’s not uncommon for companies to create informal groups, which can morph into virtual clans, based on belonging to a particular department, working in a particular city. Sometimes groups are created by people of the same generation, cultural reasons, or who have joined the company at the same time. But beware: there is always the risk in such situations of “silo syndrome”, with actually prevents cooperation, exchange of information or synergies.

The best way to prevent silo syndrome is to start with internal communication, for example by using internal social networks such as committees and meetings. The imaginative solution that the founder of Zappos came up with was to provide off-site parking, so that employees would have to strike up a conversation on the walk to the office.

On one occasion, teaching staff in one of the departments at my business school all asked to have their offices on the same floor as one of the buildings we occupy in the center of Madrid. IE Business School’s urban campus has the advantage of being close to the center of Madrid and all it offers. You could say the downside is that it is relatively dispersed, meaning that we have to think harder about how to bring people together, which includes a number of informal activities. Putting all those academics in the same place, away from their colleagues in other departments, was not a great success. I’m not aware that it produced any major breakthroughs at the academic level, and my feeling was that it isolated them from the rest of the organization. Interestingly, some of these teachers even moved on shortly afterwards, bucking the trend in a school where staff tend to stay. I’ve always thought that from both a personal and organizational perspective, it would have been more fruitful to put them in with teachers from other departments.

3.Retreats, clubs, and other informal events. A lot of companies organize gatherings to help strengthen interpersonal relations between directors and the workforce. I’m not talking here about those dreaded cocktail parties at Christmas or suchlike, which sometimes have the opposite effect, but rather activities where staff can discuss strategy, approaches, their sector, and the future. Retreats with open agendas, or brainstorming sessions outside the workplace, sometimes assigning people different roles or using games, are another option frequently chosen by companies. (8)

Informal events that bring families into the equation, involving them in the company’s plans or introducing them to key figures in the organization, can also be an effective way of balancing professional and personal lives. That said, I believe it is necessary to have friends outside work, and even beyond our close circle: it’s usually easier to talk openly and honestly with those friends that have nothing to do with our work.

4.Training and executive development and integration programs. Internal education programs specifically designed to develop participants’ personal and organizational development can contribute to creating lasting friendships within the company. Learning together is a great way to establish disinterested ties with others, and given that people tend to be more open, participants often create friendships that will be of value in working together to reach common objectives.

5.Encourage blended relationships. As well as meeting people in person, contact via the social networks, intranet, videoconferencing, chats, or websites can help create ties between members of different departments or units based in other countries that are deeper, more intellectual. At the same time, they can also strengthen a sense of corporate identity, helping to better understand how the company works.

I’m not sure how close Tennessee Williams and Henry Ford’s thinking was on friendship, or to what extent the father of the production line would have approved of some of my suggestions about how to encourage friendship within the workplace, but the man who said: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success,” (9) surely understood the importance in business of those two close relatives of friendship, camaraderie and fellowship. 


Photo: gGroup of International MBA Students at the ´Forever IE Party´ at IE Business School campus, 2015.

(1)Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, I, ii, 1.

(2) David Hume, Essays Moral, Political and Literary (1977): “Of the Jealousy of Trade”.

(3) Adam Grant, Friends at Work? Not So Much, The New York Times, September 4, 2015


(4) Aleksandra Kacpercyk, Jeffrey Sánchez Burs and Wayne E. Baker, Social Isolation in The Workplace: A Cross-Cultural and Logitudinal Analysis, University of Michigan


(5) http://www.gallup.com/services/178514/state-american-workplace.aspx

(6) JungHoo (Jay) Lee, Chihyung Ok, Effects of Workplace Friends on Employee Satisfaction, Organizational Citizenship Behavior, Turnover Intention, Absenteeism and Task Performance, Scholarworks, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2011


(7) see: Christine M. Riardon, We All Need Friends at Work, Harvard Business Review, July 3, 2013


(8) http://www.forbes.com/sites/kareanderson/2015/04/16/four-ways-to-speed-shared-learning-and-camaraderie-at-work/

(9) http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikaandersen/2013/05/31/21-quotes-from-henry-ford-on-business-leadership-and-life/
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