Why Work Friendships Go Awry, and How to Prevent It

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Chances are that you spend between a third and a half of your waking hours each week at work. As a result, your relationships with people at work can become among the most important relationships in your life. Indeed, having good relationships with colleagues is one of the strongest predictors of people’s happiness at work.

That said, there are potential downsides to having good friends at work.

Dual relationship principle

The most significant thing to watch out for relates to an ethical rule in psychotherapy called the dual relationship principle. This principle states that if someone serves as a therapist for a patient, then they cannot have any other relationship with that patient. They cannot be friends, coworkers, family, or romantic partners.

The reasoning behind the principle is that every relationship has goals associated with it, and when you have more than one relationship, those goals can conflict and cause serious problems for a therapeutic engagement. For example, a therapist needs to be able to talk openly and honestly with each patient and to say things that might be uncomfortable to say to a friend, colleague, or romantic partner.

Change of role or reporting lines

This rule doesn’t directly apply in the business world. There isn’t the same imperative to avoid all dual relationships and many people are coworkers and friends or even coworkers and spouses. But it is useful to think about how friendships with colleagues can create tensions in the workplace, and how having more than one relationship can result in conflicting goals. This is particularly important when someone rises to a management role and people who used to be peers are now direct reports.

Whenever there is some distance in the corporate hierarchy between you and a friend, your work responsibilities can be at odds with your friendship. People in management roles give assignments to their employees. They have to evaluate the people who work for them, and sometimes have to critique their work performance. These tasks are hard to do for a friend and they can put a strain on a relationship.

On top of that, peer groups often enjoy a little good-natured complaining about their supervisors, even if the workplace is generally harmonious. Once someone rises in the ranks, though, they go from being one of “us” to being one of “them.” That means that friends may now have to be careful what they say about work in social situations to avoid causing offence.

Be proactive about the sensitivities

This does not mean that once someone gets promoted that they should lose all of their old friends. Instead, it means that it’s important to be sensitive to the stress that the transition into the new role can put on a friendship. Make an effort to take some of your friends out and talk to them about some of the stresses and responsibilities of the new position. Help them to understand some of the tensions you’re feeling. You may assume that your friends will implicitly understand the tensions you have, but they are much more likely to be sympathetic if you have an open conversation.

Of course, it’s not all bad. There are positives that can come out of these relationships. Early in a career, it can be valuable to maintain a relationship with people ahead of you who are getting promoted in order to see what might lie in store for you in the future. In addition, your social network can be a valuable source of information about what is going on in your organization when it includes people who are more junior or more senior.

Ultimately, as in every relationship, it is most important to communicate. It may be that you agree to avoid discussing work-related topics with your friends. Or perhaps you let your friends know what topics you would like to avoid discussing in social situations, so that if they are getting together hoping to talk about some of those issues they can do it without you. Workplace friendships can be quite rewarding as long as they are navigated with your eyes open to the potential problems that can arise.

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