by Shasta Nelson
Lately I’ve been fielding more interview requests to talk about friendships in the workplace. The workplace, for many women, is still the number one place where you’re meeting your friends.
Work, much like school when we were kids, is the one place where the same people show up repeatedly without anyone having to initiate, invite, make plans, or schedule around, or follow-up with–we’re paid to be there and we both show up daily. That consistency breeds friendships. We report being 96% happier with our lives if we have at least three friends at work, and a whopping 30% of us end up establishing a best friend at work.
But there can also be some minefields. I hear women repeatedly say to me that they don’t feel comfortable making friends at work for various reasons and to that I want to gently say: “Hey, we live in a world where we all need more good friends, so take them where you can get them!” In the interview below, I hope I can squelch some of your fears by helping you see how you can build friendships appropriately!
For my article this time, I thought I’d re-publish an interview where Jennifer Merritt of Levo League (a professional community for Gen Y) asked me some work-related questions. Hope my answers are helpful to some of you!
Jennifer: If you really feel a connection with a co-worker, is it a good idea to try to deepen that relationship? Or should “office life” and “real life” be kept separate?
Shasta: No, I don’t think they should be separate at all! In fact, that really is one of the last places to make friends where we have one of the biggest friendship challenges taken care of for us—consistency. That’s why it felt easy in school–we saw each other every day. In “real life” it’s actually much more difficult to see each other regularly enough to build up that familiarity and comfortableness. The office is perfect, since you both have to spend so much time there. I’d definitely try to deepen that relationship, so much so that I’d encourage you to practice being friends outside of work, too, so that when one of you leaves the job, you already have other structures in place for your friendship to continue.
How concerned should you be about making friends in the office, even at the basic level of casual friendship?
People who have friends at work are way more inclined to report job satisfaction and companies recognize that that’s one of the best ways to retain employees. We will put up with a lot of stress, lower pay, and non-ideal job descriptions if we like the people we work with, so I’d say it’s worth being a pretty high priority at work. Plus, this is where you spend most of your time, so it makes sense that at minimum you want to be surrounded by people you’re friendly with, even if they don’t all turn into consequential friendships.
Are there any “rules” to making friends in the office?
I’d say two good principles are to, one, take it slow, and two, don’t let your friendship ever make others feel excluded in the office. The first one is super important: don’t over-share with someone. Vulnerability—sharing more about yourself with less of a filter—is one of the actions that develops a friendship, but I encourage everyone to engage it step by step so that really you’re never taking a big risk, as much as you are taking many, many small ones. But that’s even more important at work, where you don’t want to share too much with someone before you’ve co-created a trusting relationship with each other. And the second rule speaks more to making sure your friendship is adding to the office dynamics, not excluding others or making people feel wary, left out, or suspicious. While at work, invite more people to join in your friendly relationship—invite others to sit with you at lunch—and try to do more of your eventual secret-sharing outside of the office.
What are some good ways to explore deepening a relationship with a co-worker?
Probably starts with friendliness and chit-chat, talking about the weekend, and what TV shows you’re watching. Then the next goal is to find a way to spend more substantial time together, so usually an invitation to grab lunch together, attend an event together, or meet for drinks after work will help make that happen. And this is where it may stay for a while—friendliness in the office, friendship for an hour here and there outside the office. In fact, if this is as far as it goes—it’s an incredibly valuable relationship that will increase your happiness at work. In some cases, you may want to grow it to the next step and that means eventually starting to get together when it’s completely unattached to work, such as brunch on the weekend, a double-date with the boyfriends on a Friday night, or getting together to watch your favorite TV shows one night.
Can you — or should you — ever be friends with your manager? Or, if you are a manager, friends with your subordinate?
This one can be tricky because there is not a “one size fits all” answer. Our personalities, company culture, and individual job descriptions will inform the decision. But in theory, I’d say yes. We can be friends with people even if we have different roles at work. Obviously it requires both people respecting the other so much that neither one shares confidential information or asks for favors at work. And the two rules I mentioned earlier—taking it slow and not letting your friendship make others uncomfortable—are even more important. But the first two steps of friendship—being friendly and starting to spend more considerable time together—is definitely appropriate, in my opinion.
Fights among friends are inevitable, and can become even more hot-button if that friend is also a co-worker. What is your advice for dealing with conflicts with friends in the office?
This goes back to the second rule—don’t let your friendship make others uncomfortable in the office. That means they shouldn’t know you’re fighting. You don’t gossip about her, talk about her, or take it out on each other. Maturity means trusting each other so that even when we’re mad or disappointed, we can still trust each other to have our backs. It also speaks to the “taking it slow” part—you should never have shared more than you felt the relationship was ready to support. By the time you fight, you should have some considerable history between the two of you where you can trust that you’ll both make up and be closer than ever.
Is it appropriate to get into a friendship with someone who is in a romantic relationship? Basically, should you pursue a friendship with a co-worker if it could be misconstrued by his or her significant other?
Wow you’re asking the toughies! Good for you! Again, though, this is not an easy answer. Cross-gender relationships are an entirely different animal in this setting. If the friendship could hurt people— in the office or in either of your lives—then one has to ask whether there are other feelings or motives at work. Because a mature friendship wouldn’t want to jeopardize our friends’ other relationships. At the least, recognize this relationship has a whole different level of complication and drama that may best be avoided simply by fostering other friendships even if there isn’t as much chemistry.
What should you do if you don’t feel a connection with co-workers, on even the most basic level? (Assuming that you enjoy your job.)
Bonds can always, always be developed, in some form or another. The best place to start is with having enough conversations that you can start seeing where you both have similarities or where you “get” each other. We all have more things in common that we realize—even if we have a 40-year age gap, opposite political views or are in completely different life stages. I believe that those who seek, find; which means that if we say to ourselves, “I am choosing to like you, now I’m going to keep looking for the reasons,” we will always find them!
Shasta Nelson, M.Div., is the Founder of GirlFriendCircles.com, a women’s friendship matching site in 35 cities across the U.S. and Canada. Her spirited and soulful voice for strong female relationships can be found in her book Friendships Don’t Just Happen! The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of GirlFriends. She also writes at ShastasFriendshipBlog.com and in the Huffington Post, speaks across the country, and is a friendship expert in the media appearing on such shows as Katie Couric and the Today Show. Twitter: @girlfrndcircles