Your Work Buddy Is Not Your Friend

girl hugging dog

Kids make friends so easily. They simply spot another child and ask “Will you be my friend?” If the answer is yes, within minutes they have instant harmony.


But it is not so easy for adults to recognize true friends. And work relationships are even trickier to pin down and define. Even though we spend most of our days with work buddies — and we enjoy their company — it is worth carefully evaluating the depth of these relationships with a critical eye.

There is good reason to second-guess friendships. Research from Tel Aviv University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that we are not good at judging who our true friends are. And perhaps more important, we overestimate our influence on them.

In my own experience, I have seen the line between friend and work colleague blur.

Two distinct experiences spring to mind. In one, I hired my former work buddy and eventually regretted the decision. In another experience, my validation of a colleague’s meaningful contributions was questioned by leadership because of our friendship.

The confusion over where work ends and our personal life begins is not unique to any one industry. But no matter what field you are in, the truth is that work is deeply personal.

The very nature of work today requires collaborating with people we like and respect. Close relationships with colleagues can lead to increased productivity and happiness.

However, if the studies are true — that people overestimate influence over friends — we may want to rethink how workplace camaraderie affects decision making. Yes, it is true that our definitions of professionalism have shifted over the years. We may now cry or even get angry at work. But professional boundaries remain important.

If you cannot discern whether your work buddy is a true friend or merely a workplace acquaintance it may even pose a danger to your career. You may find that you inadvertently:

Lose integrity
You might do things you would not do for others — covering for a “friend” when they do not get their work done, for example. The flip side is also true. While you may not intentionally show favoritism to your work buddy, others within the organization may doubt your ability to judge their work impartially. Because you like this person — and want them to like you — it’s not unusual to want them to succeed. If you have leverage, you may even bend the rules to help them get ahead, or promote their ideas over others.

Dodge responsibility
If you allow friendship to cloud your judgment, you may overestimate that friend’s accomplishments. Critical feedback can be tougher to give to a friend because you don’t want to affect or disrupt the friendship. But it is your job to cultivate success — not to worry that you might hurt someone’s feelings. If you prioritize workplace camaraderie over candor, you are only hurting yourself in the long run.

Divulge secrets
Friends should be able to tell each other anything, right? Except when that information is privileged. If you overestimate the depth of your friendship, you might share confidential information. Do not you assume your work buddy will keep secrets — or you may suffer later when they share that confidential info with others.

Overlook problems
You might give them a pass on poor work or behaviors that you would not tolerate from other colleagues. Perhaps your work buddy has an acerbic sense of humor, so you dismiss sarcastic comments that would normally require a serious conversation about workplace communication. Or perhaps your work buddy is chronically late. No matter the specific problem, overlooking issues is a symptom of blurred boundaries.

Work relationships can be gratifying, but they also can be complicated. It is not to say that your work buddies can never become your true friends, but it is a difficult bridge to cross.

Navigating workplace friendships requires maturity — both from you and your buddy.

By all means, forge those lasting bonds with colleagues. But hold firm in your high standards and professionalism. And be aware of the potential pitfalls that might negatively impact your career if you overestimate the depth of your friendship.

Do you think work buddies can ever be true friends?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

Sign up for a free trial of Aha! and see why more than 250,000 users worldwide trust Aha! to build and market products customers love.

We are rapidly growing and hiring!

  • Customer Success Managers (product manager experience required)
  • Product Marketing Managers
  • UX Designers
  • Rails Developers

Work from anywhere and be happy. Learn about our team — see current openings.

Comments

  1. Robert Fitzgerald

    Great post, Brian. Yes, I do think that work friends can be non-work friends, even if they work together or one reports to the other. The key is in open communication, empathy, passion, and focus.

    Every day we can look around and find retired military members talking about their “friends” from their unit – these are men and women who work together everyday, sometimes within isolating circumstances and who come to depend on each other, so yes, I think it is possible.

    If more traditional work environments, I think it is the same. Many times we see people will move jobs or companies in pairs or teams…. because they have developed a trusted relationship with open communication, empathy, passion, and focus, and often they are connected outside of the 4 walls of the office. I suspect you see this at Aha! as well.

    Glad to see things are going well. Keep it up.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *