Having friends in the office improves conditions and chance for success


Published: Monday, January 8, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 7, 2007 at 11:40 p.m.
Friendships in the workplace pay off big time in worker engagement and productivity. But less than 20 percent of workers are at companies that recognize the value of on-the-job friendships, says Tom Rath, who heads the Gallup Organization's Workplace Research and Leadership Consulting Division.
''While we spend more than half of our waking hours at work, most organizations have done very little to encourage friendships on the job. Some go as far as to prohibit close relationships, which could be a catastrophic mistake,'' Rath writes in ''Vital Friends: The People You Can't Afford to Live Without'' (Gallup Press, $22.95).
Rath, who co-wrote the bestseller ''How Full Is Your Bucket?'' with Don Clifton, pulled this observation and others from millions of interviews on the subject conducted by teams of Gallup researchers.
Friendships in the workplace can pose risks, he says, including the formation of cliques that alienate others and the creation of ''bellyache buddies.''
Referring to his interviews with many former Detroit autoworkers, Rath says that relationships between management and union workers used to be so bad that they caused constant workplace tension. As a result, most friendships between hourly workers were ''based on mutual hatred for their employer.''
Although employee-management relations may have generally improved, Rath says most workplaces today have at least one pair of friends who accentuate the negative.
''That being said, according to recent research, the potential upside of friendships on the job could dramatically outweigh the possible disadvantages,'' he writes. ''New studies suggest that close friendships at work lead to substantial increases - not decreases - in job satisfaction and career success.''
The author provides numerous anecdotes taken from Gallup interviews of on-the-job friendships that have improved the lives of employees and the success of organizations, and the negative effects of discouraging such friendships. He also shows how some companies now are striving creatively to provide opportunities for building friendships. Best Buy, for example, has used the architecture of its headquarters building to create a ''water cooler effect'' that fosters more interaction.
Rath maintains that ''without a best friend at work, the chances of being engaged in your job are 1 in 12.'' He adds that, based upon the Gallup research, people ''with at least three close friends at work were 96 percent more likely to be extremely satisfied with their life.'' Although friendship in the workplaces occupies a sizable portion of ''Vital Friends,'' the book examines the concept of friendship generally. The insights Rath brings to the subject derive from his distinction between friends and vital friends.
He defines a vital friend as ''someone who measurably improves your life . . . a person at work or in your personal life whom you can't afford to live without.''
Rath designates eight vital roles that different friends can play: builder, champion, collaborator, companion, connector, energizer, mind opener and navigator. ''Vital Friends'' could prove valuable for managers, people seeking to advance in their careers and those who wish to enrich their personal lives.
''When I speak with people who love their jobs and have vital friendships at work, they always talk about how their workgroup is like a family,'' Rath writes. ''Team members care about one another, listen, share secrets, talk about the latest news, have heated arguments, are sometimes jealous of each other, and even cry together.''

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