Why friendships are important at work

Organisations often talk about culture, but rarely consider the role that having friends at work plays in creating a healthy, dynamic and productive workplace. There’s no doubt that workplaces are complex environments – bringing together a melting pot of people with varying ideas, assumptions, experiences, expectations and ambitions.

Workplaces can also be highly destructive. The damage that unhealthy work environments have on people and their mental wellbeing is well known. Some people believe that if a work environment is too collegiate, people stop challenging each other and, consequently, ideas are not robustly debated. Yet combative, highly-politicised environments where a dominant person subjugates the ideas of others aren’t healthy either.

If you want an engaged and productive workplace where ideas are constructively challenged and people are encouraged to go beyond the norm, consider how you nurture and encourage friendships.

Why does this matter?

Fosters collaboration

Our brain quickly assesses whether we see someone as ‘friend’ or ‘foe’. It sizes someone up and judges a person to be ‘in my tribe’ or ‘outside my tribe’.

The brain then processes the information we receive from that person according to which category we’ve put them in. What this means in practice is that if two people are saying the same thing to us, with one considered a ‘foe’ and the other a ‘friend’, we will interpret what they are saying differently. It’s like giving someone the benefit of the doubt. We will do this for a friend, but not a foe.

In the workplace, this means if you see other people as ‘foe’ you are more likely to misinterpret their intent, which in turn leads to distrust, disagreement and unproductive competitive behaviour – none of which helps to build a collaborative and productive workplace.

Builds engagement

In his book Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without, Tom Rath outlines research that suggests employees who have best friends at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs, and if they have at least three ‘vital’ friends at work, they are 96 per cent more likely to be satisfied with their lives.

Accelerates progress

Good friends don’t just agree with you. They challenge and inspire you to greater heights. They help you see things from different perspectives and to explore new ideas. It’s much easier to accept input and feedback from a friend whom you trust. Similarly, having an affiliative and collaborative environment makes it easier for ideas to be debated, agreed on and progressed.

If you want to develop an influential and effective team, consider the role that friendship can play in helping to create the culture you need to excel.


Michelle Gibbings is a change and leadership expert and founder of Change Meridian. She works with global leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress in complex environments. She is the author of Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work. For more information, visit www.michellegibbings.com or contact [email protected]


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