Who Needs BFFs at Work?


At SkyeTeam, we do a lot of research and work in the relationship space, particularly relationships in the workplace. Well, not those relationships! The stuff of tabloids and telenovellas are interesting and make for good TV, but this is a family show here.

What’s become fascinating to me, is this idea of some sort a correlation between workplace friendships and productivity (and safety, and engagement, and ideation, and ultimately revenue). Further, I’ve gotten really interested in the perceived distinction between work friends and friends in general. Are we cognizant of how they impact how we show up at work? Is that different than how we show up with our non-work friends?

This notion of separateness is one of the foundational cornerstones addressed in Morag’s first book, “Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationships.” In this book, she articulates the core idea that business is personal and relationships do matter; that you can’t cleave these things apart. Human beings are social creatures who are hardwired for connection. Yes, even all of those hardcore introverted software developers. They know who they are. =)

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

I want to spend a little time talking through some of these concepts; about the current research in the field, about the inherent pushback from (some) business leaders, and about the real life implications that these workplace friendships have in all of our lives; they’re kind of a big deal.

Do You Have a Best Friend at Work?

Man, that question perennially gets a rise out of some folks. It has been part of the Gallup Q12 since there has been a Gallup Q12. For those who do not know, the Q12 is Gallup’s employee engagement survey tool. It has been used with over twenty five million employees since the late 90s. If you’ve ever heard the words “Gallup Poll,” you’ll know that this organization knows a thing or two about collecting, analyzing, and reporting on big data. So, in a serious, large scale instrument about employee engagement, why on earth would there be a question about BFFs at work?

Well, quite simply, because this question is one of the strongest indicators of high performance. The just released, 2017 State of the American Workplace, once again, verifies this. As with many good predictors, this question has been pissing people off for years! Even the quizmasters at Gallup will tell you, this element raises the hackles of business executives more than any other facet of the Q12. In some cases, companies opted NOT to use the survey because they could not seem to wrap their heads around the ole best friend question.

I was having a conversation with a colleague recently, where she explained that her company was using an employee survey tool based on a core set of competencies; one of these elements involved having a BFF at work. There are 24 other components in this tool and the process requires netting this out to the “Top 5” or the most important needle-moving-bang-for-your-buck areas of focus.

For context, this is a data-driven mechanical engineering firm. Sooooooooyeah. The employees balked at the friend concept out of the gate and the leadership team actually filtered it out of their Top 5; purposefully disregarding it and writing it off as “too soft and fluffy.”

Fascinating. We deal with this “soft and fluffy” illusion all the time at SkyeTeam. Despite the hullaballoo, Item #Q10 remains one of the strongest predictors of employee engagement and collective (team) performance.

The Numbers Don’t Lie: Relationships Matter

Having a best friend at work, according to the Gallup research, means you are seven times more likely to be engaged and the correlation to the bottom line is undeniable. Researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of Pennsylvania found that individuals with pre-existing friendships outperformed acquaintances on both high-cognitive, and rote repetitive tasks. Friends are more committed to the project from the onset, communicate better and more completely, and offered more positive encouragement along the way. Friends also evaluated ideas more critically and were more willing to give feedback during the project.

Put simply, Friends are less willing to let other friends down; simple, yet shockingly effective.

Further, Gallup says, “though the best friend question sometimes gets a bad rap, it consistently shows a strong relationship to improvements in customer engagement, profit, and (fewer) employee safety incidents.” I do find it interesting that this element is so often panned. Humans are social creatures by nature. To ignore that (or to create workplace policies that explicitly force people to deny this nature), seems foolish.

According to Donald Clifton (Gallup founder and inventor of the Q12), friendships at work are also strong predictors of productivity. Employees with BFFs at work tend to be more checked-in, more fired up, and they stick around longer than those without friendships in the workplace.

It seems that the reasons why you’d want to have a work BFF are pretty compelling, so what can you do?

How Do You Make A Best Friend At Work (and What Does That Even Mean)?

Peer relationships in the workplace offer an interesting set of advantages. These relationships provide a level of intrinsic reward, unavailable through other channels; they help to buffer job-related stress, reduce overall job dissatisfaction, and turnover. If those things are true, then it’s easy to see how this corroborates the Gallup data.

Workplace relationships are different from other “friend contexts” in that they are literally defined by their context. It’s why you might hear someone refer to a particularly close co-worker as their “work wife” or “work spouse.” There is a level of closeness or intimacy, but the context provides a defining lens through which to view the entire relationship.

According to research by Patricia Sias and Daniel Cahill workplace relationships are marked by three distinct transitions.

  • Acquaintance to Friend
  • Friend to Close Friend
  • Close Friend to Best Friend

The first transition happens fairly seamlessly, and doesn’t require much more than time, proximity, and some shared work effort. It takes about a year of normal in-team or at-work interactions for someone to move from being an acquaintance into the ‘friend zone’ (and to be clear, ‘friend zone’ is a good thing here).

To make the second transition, time and proximity aren’t enough. You’re going to have to put some skin in the game. According to Sias and Cahill, the only way to round this corner is to lower your walls and take some risks. Sias says, “the transition from friend to close friend was driven primarily by (sharing) problems/events both in one’s personal life and professional experiences.” These folks tend to socialize outside the work context.

Makes sense, right? You hang out, things get a little more comfortable, you let down the wall a little, roll the dice, and take a risk. If that move is met with a like move, then we have a dance! If that move is met with resistance, laughter, or a cool, distant “ummm, yeah, thanks for sharing,” then things are gonna get a skosh awkward.

It’s kinda like the first time you lob an “I love you” out there to your new romantic interest. There’s an implicit expectation that you get a like for like response…hence the risk. This transition takes more time than the ~12 months in the first transition. To get to close friend status, you’re in for about a 31 month ride, on average.

The transition from close friend to best friend is even more complex, and involves even more time, and more hanging out. I’m also willing to bet that happy hours are a strong correlative variable in many of these close-to-best transitions. According to Sias and Cahill, intimacy is the driving factor in this elusive shift. It takes about 4 years from first contact to unlock best friend status.

So, time and proximity isn’t enough. You have to roll the dice and invest some time. Well, hell, that’s risky. But wait, fathers (I’m going to play stereotypes for this example) all over the world have been telling kids (especially young dudes) for years, “don’t let people see you cry, man (or woman or cowboy) up, toughen up cupcake,” and the like since dirt was new.

Vulnerability, You’re Not the Weak Antelope at the Back of the Herd.

I can’t mention the word vulnerability without thinking of Brené Brown. As a matter of fact, if you haven’t seen her absolutely stellar TED talk, just stop right now and go watch:

The Power of Vulnerability” ~Brené Brown

I’ll wait.

Right??? OK, now that your mind has been blown, let’s talk about this. Humans are hardwired for connection. This is a central reason why the BFF question matters so much. Disconnection from other people is a thing that that we FEAR. If that’s true, then discouraging human connection via HR policies, by opting out of the Q12, or modifying your engagement instrument so that it doesn’t include the BFF question, then your organization is likely missing a big variable in the equation.

Uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure are not words that leap to mind when you think about building effective workplace relationships, and this doesn’t come naturally to many folks. It’s counter-intuitive, it’s risky, and you have to put yourself out there? Great. Who’s ready to sign up?

It’s All About Being an Ally, (to Yourself…(First)).

In her book, Morag Barrett talks about the concept of the “Ally Mindset.” We at Skye use this lens in much of the leadership development work that we do. A focal point of my current research is in the area of self-compassion. The notion being that one has to be self-compassionate in order to fully embrace an outward-facing ally mindset.

When the book was written, the mindset was composed of four components that build on one another. In order to be an ally, one has to show up with a purview of abundance and generosity. We operate SkyeTeam this way. There is more than enough work out there for many more Leadership Development folks, and if we aren’t the right fit for you, we’ll help you find someone who is. If we had a scarcity mindset, we would be less likely to say what we needed to, and would go to great lengths to protect what we already had. If the world is abundant, and we are generous, then we are more likely to step up to the plate and say what we think, thus expressing candor and being willing to debate.

Candor and debate take the courage to be vulnerable. Showing up as your authentic self is the first step to making that magic happen. As a result of our work in this space, we are testing a new component to the Ally Mindset, compassion and connection. As Brown says, “as humans, we are hardwired for connection.” In essence, we need friends at work to move toward self-actualization. Human connection is the glue that enables us to fully commit to a cause, to a group, to a team, to a job. Human connection is the continuous loop feedback mechanism that lets us know that we are doing “ok.” It helps us to navigate the larger life-path obstacles. Yeah, I know, that’s a pretty heavy thing to stick in the middle of a blog post.

If all of these elements are present in our mindset, then we can take action and hold ourselves and others accountable. That’s where the rubber meets the road; actually getting shit done. Only allies can complete the cycle here. You can’t hold back and get it done. In order to not hold back you have to invest in those relationships that are important.

If you’re curious about your own Ally Mindset, we have built an assessment that will map it out for you! The tool can be accessed for free as part of our Cultivate@Work community, in the “Develop Your Ally Mindset” module. If you’re interested in the checking it out, use the coupon code BFFSRULE at checkout and we’ll knock 50% the price of the course.

What Have You Got to Lose?

Think about your workplace friendships. Think about how you show up. What would be different if you were purposeful and showed up to that relationship as an ally? What would be different if you were just a little more vulnerable?

OK, so here’s your homework. Pick one workplace relationship that currently sits just at or above the acquaintance level (you know, you’ve known ’em about a year, and you’ve done some work together), that you’d like to evolve to the “close friend” level. This involves letting some of the walls down and sharing some of life’s challenges. That said, do this purposefully, employing the components of the Ally Mindset (take the course, it’s half off).

Over the course of the next 3-4 weeks, take regular pulse checks along the way. Pay attention to how the relationship changes. Pay attention to the quality of the work that comes out of your pair/group/team. Pay attention to the changes in social dynamic of the team. Reach out and let us know what changed, and how it worked out.

Who needs BFFs at work? We all do.

If you’re interested in participating in this Ally Mindset research, please reach out to me directly via LinkedIn or at info@skyeteam.com.

[This article was first published on Linked In, March 29th 2017]