Workplace friendships could have negative effects for a company, especially in the age of social media, according to a study published in The Academy of Management Review.
Co-author Nancy Rothbard, a management professor at the Wharton School, talked to host David Brancaccio about how work relationships affect productivity and work culture, and how to navigate friendships in particularly complicated situations, including between a supervisor and a subordinate. Additionally, social media can increase any of these dynamics that are at play within the workplace, she said. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. (You can click the above audio player to hear our extended interview.)
Nancy Rothbard: We all have friends at work. We all want to have friends at work because we spend a lot of time there. But it’s also complicated, and this is something that I started to research with a doctoral student of mine, Julianna Pillemer. We started to really delve into “Why is this so complicated? Why is friendship so hard sometimes at work?”
David Brancaccio: All right, now I don’t want to be that guy, but I have to point out sometimes friendships at the office are a time suck, right? You listen to a lot of personal stories and personal problems that, you know, can take up a little bit of work time.
Rothbard: It sounds like you’ve read our paper, Dave, because if you’ve got a friend that you’ve been spending a lot of time with, that can distract you from the other things that you’re trying to do at work, which is get your own work done or, you know, exceeding expectations, as often we like to do.
Brancaccio: And if two co-workers are close, it can breed a little bit of resentment for people who don’t see themselves as quite as close.
Rothbard: It’s the classic clique problem where two people are really close, maybe three people are close, and they feel excluded from that friendship. And whenever you have that kind of dynamic, it can breed envy and resentment. When you’re at work, that also has implications for how people feel about whether decision making is just and fair.
Brancaccio: And I know you’ve also looked at what happens when you add technology, social media to this mix of work friendships.
Rothbard: Online social media has the effect of exacerbating some of these dynamics and making, for example, some of the cliques really visible. All of a sudden it becomes really clear that you and I were off at a movie over the weekend, and somebody else was left out of that invitation. That’s the kind of thing that you want to be aware of as you navigate these kinds of relationships and just be sensitive to those dynamics.
Brancaccio: So your collaborator on this piece, Julianna, you said her name was?
Rothbard: Yes, Julianna Pillemer.
Brancaccio: Nancy, is she your friend?
Rothbard: She’s my friend. But I’m also her adviser, and we’ve actually both talked about it. That is something that I think that you can do with friends at work, which is to kind of name it or label it and say, “We’re friends, but we also are co-workers, and sometimes the co-worker part is going to win out.” And so knowing when each of those roles is salient and the right person to be is important.