Friendships at work - It’s complicated.
You may find some of the most difficult relationships to manage are in the realm of your work. There are people you report too, people who report to you, clients, vendors, and a world of different personalities you must manage. People are moving through their careers with their own agendas and often we encounter untrustworthy individuals and certainly many unvirtuous people. It’s easy for your good intentions to be misconstrued, and because this is your livelihood, emotions often run high. Befriending those who report to you is very rough waters and it takes incredibly mature individuals to successfully navigate these types of relationships.
If you spend 8-10 hours a day with a group of people, you want to do all you can to create a positive atmosphere and good working relationships. As we consider the management of this environment, we once again take the path of serving and elevating others no matter their status in an organization. As you slay dragons, win accounts, overcome market obstacles, and grow a business it is human, and just, to develop and admiration an appreciation of those with whom you serve.
Friendships born from work have the potential to end poorly and or dramatically. You may have built a trusting relationship only to discover your trust was violated. You may have a friend who reports to you who is failing at the job, and after attempts to correct their actions, you must terminate the work relationship, which has the potential to damage the entire relationship.
Some of the most disappointing endings to relationships for me have come from a work relationship which needed to end at work, but there was no willingness or maturity to continue the relationship once the individual was no longer employed.
John D Rockefeller once said, “A friendship founded on business is better than a business founded on friendship.” I’ve seen this play out to be true. In the cooperative pursuit of building an organization or defeating a competitor comes comradery. You are all in the fox hole together. There are company celebrations for milestones and successes. There are strategy sessions, group projects, conventions, and traveling together which build connections and experiences. One can choose not to build close relationships through these interactions, but then the disingenuousness of such actions will keep trust from building and demotivate virtuous people.
I was taught early in my career to not develop friendships at work. I was told to keep a firm separation so I could act without emotion while making personnel changes. Keeping a wall up around my personal life I was told would keep people from using my experiences to manipulate me. I was taught to see people as a resource which could be used when needed and eliminated when not. This would put friendship at work squarely within Aristotle’s friendships of utility.
I learned with time this is not possible if you want to encourage and develop teams. It is better to be genuine, to open yourself up to being disappointed by a relationship than to shut people out. Twice I changed jobs in my career because the leaders I was serving kept me at arm’s length and were unwilling to open their world fully to me for learning and comradery. I had no interest in taking on the world for someone, but I was more than willing to slay dragons with someone.
In 1995 I met a gentleman who owned an insurance agency in the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex. Al Boenker had built a business and a highly recognized brand in DFW. He was a client of the company I was working for in the media world and I was given the responsibility of managing his account. The more time I spent with him the more I was impressed with his style of leadership. He was teaching me business lessons with each of our interactions as he was twenty years my senior. He was the sort of individual who was willing to teach, listen and include you in the things he was doing. In 1998 I went to work for him. He permitted me access to all departments within his business, not just the one I was managing. He encouraged learning and licensing and he included me in the new ventures he took on and the companies he built. He never spoke down to me. He permitted me to make mistakes. He offered counsel. He also included me in the personal parts of his life, his family, and his personal trips. He followed a completely different pattern than the individuals I had served in the past. He opened the door and gave me access to his business and his life. Twenty-four years later I am grateful for a long career within one organization, but more grateful for being treated as a friend and not an employee. This was not unique to me. Al did the same for everyone who was on his leadership team, or who had spent many years with the company. Al never kept people at arm’s length – he brought you in with a bear hug.
Al’s example broke the mold I had been poured into during my media career. His process was not cutthroat, but inclusion. It was a virtuous example of a path to success. There are many ways to succeed, but a virtuous path provides a great deal more satisfaction when it is achieved, and you find you are not standing alone on the podium.
Al’s example reflects the process of treating everyone with sincerity and the hope a relationship can move into a primary friendship. As a leader you can be a mentor and share with employees your past lessons learned, as well as learning lessons together in the battle to build a company.
If you are the employee and given such an opportunity, there are some important notes you must take to make this relationship work well and to ensure you take a virtuous approach. First, you can be grateful for being treated as a friend, but you must never stop behaving as an employee. Obligations and duties must be met, respect must be given without acting in an overly familiar tone. You must continue to permit yourself to be invited, and never intrude. You should never assume or behave as if the friendship releases you from responsibilities or elevates you over others in the organization. You mustn’t be jealous when others are given the same access. You must never use the relationship with a supervisor to coerce or frighten others. When someone in leadership gives you access to their lives you are given a great responsibility. Relationships with leaders in a company requires you to ensure you are keeping your actions virtuous and step carefully with the kindness you’ve been shown. Leaders may step down from their platforms, but you cannot step up to theirs without an invitation.
A parable told by Jesus is the best example for an employee on how to behave when invited into a friendship by someone in leadership. The Apostle Luke recalls Jesus saying, “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
When we had a new hire on our executive team, I had a test. I would invite some of the leadership team out to lunch. If the new person jumped in the front seat without offering it to someone else, I immediately made a judgment on their future within our organization. Never take the seat of honor, and always elevate those you serve above yourself.
If you are a leader, you have a choice of how to serve others. I’ve followed Al’s pattern and opened my personal life to those around me, knowing there are potential perils in such actions, but willing to be disappointed over being disconnected. In my work relationships I have built lifelong brothers and sisters, and I have also built lifelong enemies. If one of these relationships goes in a poor direction, and you must make a business decision to separate, there is a high probability the other person will not forgive you for the decision you made. Poor performance, bad behavior, apathy, unkindness, and other negatives cannot be tolerated in an organization, or it can rot the performance of a company. No matter how close you may be to someone, you might have to make the tough call of termination.
Terminating someone is a horrible experience. Terminating someone or ending a work relationship with someone you have built a friendship with is excruciating. I’ve seldom been forgiven after a termination or separation. Remember, primary friendship is built between virtuous people. If someone is failing in their service, treating others in the company poorly, is behaving in a deceitful manner, is not taking steps to correct noted items, then this is not someone for your inner circle.
Some of the friendships I am most thankful for began at work. This booklet is generally about friendships between men, but I want to address friendship in the workplace between those of the opposite sex. If you want to create a