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Why it is a bad idea for managers to attempt to engineer office friendships

The Economist: “Scholars of happiness have found that close relationships are one of the critical ingredients of a contented life. What is true in general is also true of the workplace, according to research by Gallup. The pollster finds that having a “best friend at work” is closely associated with all manner of good things, from greater employee engagement to higher retention and better safety records. At some level, that is unremarkable. Spending time with people you like makes most things more appealing, including work. If a job is sufficiently humdrum, camaraderie among colleagues can be the main draw. The support of friends can also encourage people to try new things…The reverse also applies. Antagonistic relationships with co-workers are always likely to make working life miserable. A study conducted by Valerie Good of Grand Valley State University found that loneliness has an adverse effect on the performance of salespeople. Among other things, they start spending more on wining and dining their customers. The only thing worse than a salesperson who sees you as a way to make money is one who wants your company. So friends matter. The problems come when managers see the words “higher employee engagement” and leap to the conclusion that they should try to engineer work friendships. In a report published last year Gallup gave the example of an unnamed organisation which has a weekly companywide meeting that spotlights one employee’s best friend at work. It’s not known if, in the Q&A, others pop up to sob: “But I thought we were best friends at work.” Startups also offer services to encourage work friendships. One monitors the depth of connections between people in different teams. It identifies shared interests (gluten-free baking, say, or workplace surveillance) between employees who don’t know each other and arranges meetings between them. You thought life was bad? At least you are not making crumpets with a stranger in finance.

It is a mistake for managers to wade into the business of friend-making, and not just because it royally misses the point. The defining characteristic of friendship is that it is voluntary. Employees are adults; they don’t need their managers to arrange play-dates. And the workplace throws people together, often under testing conditions: friendships will naturally follow. The bigger problem is that workplace friendships are more double-edged than their advocates allow. They can quickly become messy when power dynamics change. The transition from friend to boss, or from friend to underling, is an inherently awkward one (“This is your final warning. Fancy a pint?”)…”

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