You and your coworkers are sitting in some bar in a business hotel in Cincinnati, Cleveland, or Chicago, unwinding after a long day of activities. As you find yourself enjoying the easy ambience, inside jokes, and shared experiences built up through the years you realize that you much prefer sitting here with them than watching Monday Night Football alone up in your room. Then the question hits you.
Are these my coworkers or my friends?
The conventional notion is that there are healthy boundaries between work, home and social life. The fear of spending too much time at work so makes some of us uncomfortable even speaking of work friendships as if it underscores our lack of personal balance. So, do coworkers only become friends if I choose to engage with them outside of a work setting? Should I feel guilty having relationships not shared by my spouse or the rest of my family? As men and women become broadly accepted as workplace peers can the emotional complications of a “work wife” or “work husband” be managed with teammates of the opposite sex?
And really, aren’t most of my coworkers just that…coworkers? Sure, but some work relationships will rise to such a level of familiarity as to demand a more thoughtful place within our emotional furnishings. How do you know which ones? As I think back on the colleagues that have built themselves into my life four recurring features come to mind:
Wishes you well for your sake
Many individuals may wish you well but, to borrow from Aristotle, the real friend is the person that “when he wishes a person good, wishes it for that person’s own sake.” A colleague is interested in my well-being not for whatever good it might do for him or the firm, but simply because he wants the best for me. The rules of fiduciary responsibility are not waived among colleagues. They must be hired, promoted, terminated, managed and followed as circumstances require, just like any other individual. But the true colleague exerts the effort to mind the inevitable tensions responsibly on behalf of both the firm and the friend’s well-being.
Takes you seriously
My work-friends respect me both as a professional and as a person. That means my contributions and opinions are appreciated but not patronized. Colleagues can and do disagree. After all, the old maxim is largely true, if two business people always agree one of them is unnecessary. But my perspective is requested, evaluated, supported when deserving and rejected when not. Mark Twain joked “the proper office of a friend is to side with you when you are in the wrong. Nearly anybody will side with you when you are in the right.”
Not colleagues. Since they truly wish me well they both compliment and correct, encourage and dissuade as business reality demands. But all is done with an eye to building me up.
Is honest, but not necessarily blunt
We must always count on workplace honesty, but a work-friend will add to truth-telling a sense of candor and timing. A colleague never tells us an untruth, but neither does she feel obligated to tell us every true thing she thinks at the moment she thinks it. However valuable a golf tip, few of us would want it shouted out during our backswing. So it is with work colleagues who, by virtue of the fact that they spend so much time with us, can engage the right moments for the right discussions.
My son is a poet and he describes workshops in which new poems are shared among other writers. The first reading is always done by someone other than the author of the poem. It allows the poet to hear his work presented back to him in someone else’s voice. It is a beautiful description of the work of a colleague. He takes your own story and speaks it back to you at the time when you are ready and able to hear and discern it. Because he is your colleague he, better than anyone, knows when those moments are likely to present themselves.
Enjoys company, respects boundaries
Work-friendships are usually bounded by the workday at the office, factory, or shop. It makes being colleagues complicated and hard because those boundaries are real and important to home and family life. Work-friendships should be celebrated but never to the point that they diminish family relationships and responsibilities. Workplace friendships are also naturally burdened by organizational hierarchy, company fiduciary responsibility or departmental boxes which must be respected. It is not surprising, then, that among our many co-workers only a few rise to true work-friends.
But arrayed against those complications is the powerful fuel of shared experience. Business teammates often speak of having “been in the trenches” with each other and while it is trite to compare work with combat, the battle tempering of friendships is real. Some of the most powerful words spoken into my life have been from colleagues, and those words came out of an abiding affection for me built from common purpose. How sad if I had avoided, rather than pursued those work relationships.
It is this very peculiar nature of work friendships that should make them important and intentional. But most of all, the potential power of work-friendships should also cause us to communicate them to our spouse and family so that in our transparency we can reduce the mystery of the office and connect the emotional dots in a way that helps us all understand and enjoy each other.
Write down the names of the first two or three people that come to mind when you think about “work-friendships”. Then run through the four criteria and see how many fit. Are there other characteristics of a work-friend you would add to the list?
Does your spouse or significant other know the names of your work-friends and the important role they play in your life? If not, why?