Your work friends aren't the same as your personal friends

Managing work friendships the same way you do personal friendships is a common and preventable misstep

Posted by Tom Leach on April 15, 2015

Recently, I screwed up the management of an underperforming junior engineer on my team. Despite all of my desire to do the best possible job I could to motivate him and help develop him as an engineer, it ended with his somewhat slow and tortured exit from the company. I’ve post-mortemed this episode both in my head and with colleagues for the last week and come to a few realisations.

What did I learn?

The key insight I have come to in hindsight is how profoundly different your relationships with your colleagues are compared to those relationships you have with your friends.

Now some people might say “well, hang on, my colleagues are my friends”. That may be true and I have certainly worked with many people over the years who were and continue to be close friends.

Even so, it’s still important to separate out what “friend” means in the context of how you feel about someone personally (“I like Tom, he’s so fun to be around, gets my humour, we have fun chatting about our mutual interest in The Godfather movies”), and what “friend” means from the perspective of how you manage that relationship and what you prioritize.

In pure social relationships the primary goal is the relationship itself

Outside of work, friends are people who, though we like spending time with them, often make choices or approach problems in a way we don’t agree with or find to be perverse or confounding. Yet we rarely point these things out (except perhaps in jest) or seek to give our friends critical feedback on their behaviour with a view to “improving” it. Nor do we set expectations upon which our continuing friendship is contingent.

For example, let’s say I have a friend whom I really value, whom I love spending time with, but who is a terrible-but-generous cook. Despite having to endure endless dry, flavourless muffins, is it likely I’m going to have a frank conversation with him/her about areas for improvement and what my expectations are for future baking projects?

No. Why not? Because in this context the thing I care about most is preserving the relationship. Giving my friend critical feedback about their cooking may offend him/her and diminish our friendship which runs counter to that goal. So instead I’d probably do what most people do - drop indirect hints, make excuses, tell the odd white lie.

In work relationships the relationship itself is secondary

It’s natural for people to bring this diplomatic mindset to the relationships they establish with colleagues at work, whether they be peer relationships or manager-worker relationships. A lot of the time healthy work relationships resemble pure social relationships (shared interests, humour, enjoyment of each other’s personalities) which makes it all the more natural to treat them the same way.

This is a mistake. In work relationships the primary goal is improving the performance of the individual and the organisation. Though maintaining a friendly relationship is obviously desirable, it takes a back seat to what you’re trying to achieve collectively.

In work relationships you can’t afford to let some counterproductive behaviour go unaddressed for fear of weakening a friendship. In work relationships an area of underperformance needs to be highlighted and expectations clearly communicated, even if it makes for a difficult and strained conversation.

By tiptoeing around and making excuses for areas where someone isn’t meeting expectations, you’re not giving them the feedback they clearly need to get better at their job and advance their career. Furthermore, any serious performance problem could eventually result in their dismissal. In failing to deliver difficult critical feedback you’ve set them up for a shock and removed an opportunity they might have had to meet the bar you set for them (but didn’t communicate).

Direct, honest feedback makes for stronger relationships

Though it may feel awkward and strained initially, delivering that critical feedback to a colleague can and should actually strengthen your relationship with that person in the long term. This may seem counterintuitive, but in many cases your colleagues are desperate to do a good job and are quietly crying out for feedback. Even if they aren’t, providing the person with an opportunity to improve will ultimately be something for which they thank and respect you.

Obviously the way in which that feedback is delivered is still important. Critical feedback delivered badly can be almost as counterproductive as no feedback at all.

  • Start by being explicit about why you believe honest, direct feedback is of benefit to both of you and the organization.
  • Describe what you have perceived in the area under discussion.
  • Be specific. Use examples.
  • Invite the other person to give their account of what has happened. The other person’s perception may modify your understanding of the situation.
  • Keep emotion out of it. You’re there to establish facts not argue.
  • Use open questions to ask the other person how they think they can improve. Avoid just giving them a list of things you want them to do.
  • Set clear expectations for the future and define what success criteria look like.

Some of the best work friendships I have are with people whom I often disagree with, who challenge me to re-evaluate my ideas and who sometimes give me feedback which is hard to swallow. I value these friendships because of these difficult interactions not in spite of them because I know they are raising my bar every day.

The challenge for me (for all of us really) is to shake off our awkward social angst and be that bar-raising person to someone else.

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