Why Work Friends are Worth It
ALISON BEARD: Welcome the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard. The subject of today’s show is near and dear to my heart. We’re going to be talking about work friendships.
I’ve had really good ones ever since I started my career at the Freelance Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Ted Bird was my first work best friend. We went on early morning runs together and drank lots of wine on Friday nights. At the Financial Times in New York and London, I bonded with Rebecca Knight, who’s now like a sister to me.
And at HBR, I’m lucky to have close confidants like Scott Berinato, Amy Gallo and Dan McGinn. This is a little crazy, but I asked my producer, Mary, who’s also a friend, to call all three of them and ask a question. Why are you and Alison friends?
AMY GALLO: We became friends, I think because we had a lot in common, and truthfully because she once laughed really hard at a joke of mine, which endeared me to her. But I think we’ve stayed friends because Alison always has my back.
ALISON BEARD: And Scott.
SCOTT BERINATO: I think really what it is is we’re so different and somehow the same at the same time. We have similar life experiences and similar thoughts and ideas but we approach things so differently and think about things so differently – so there’s a real complimentary nature to our friendship.
ALISON BEARD: And Dan.
DAN MCGINN: I became friends with Alison originally because of proximity. I was assigned to sit next to her my first day at HBR. We were in this tiny little cubicle. She’d been there two weeks, and we really had to learn to do this job together. There’s no doubt she’s been my closest friend here for the last ten years, and I’m lucky for that.
ALISON BEARD: And here’s what I love about all three of them. They check in. They listen well. And they make me laugh.
None of that will surprise my guest today. Friendship expert Shasta Nelson says that the best relationships, including the ones you form at work, are built on three pillars, consistency, vulnerability and positivity. She’s the author of the book, The Business of Friendship, Making the Most of Our Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time. Shasta, thanks so much for speaking with me today.
SHASTA NELSON: Oh, thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to talk about this.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, so you can tell that I believe really strongly in having close friends at work, but a lot of people will question whether you really need to. How do you respond to that skepticism?
SHASTA NELSON: I just point to the research. So you’re a very smart, wise person. But it’s amazing to me organizations like Gallup have been saying for two decades the best employees, meaning the most engaged, the best customer service, they call into sick less frequently, they have fewer workplace accidents, yadda, yadda, yadda. The list is really long. And they say the best employees say that they have a best friend at work.
And there are so many other studies that show having friends at work matters, or how many friends you have at work matters. A huge study just came out right as I was researching this book from the Myers-Briggs Institute, and they were saying that they did a big test of 110 different countries, and were basically asking, what are the factors that matter most to job satisfaction? And it didn’t surprise any of us that coworkers, or those friends were high on the list, but it was even shocking to me that it was number one. So I mean, the research is really significant, but this matters. And yet, to your point, it’s kind of crazy how many people resist that, feel uncomfortable with it, or don’t want to foster that in the workplace – employers and employees.
ALISON BEARD: So there are really tangible, measurable benefits, both to the individual and the team or organization as a result of work friendships?
SHASTA NELSON: Yeah. I mean, I did my first two chapters on just how significant that is, trying to summarize the research. So like, when you talk about your friendships at work, your happiness is bound to go up. You are going to be, you’re going to report feeling more job satisfaction. Your health is better. We know how important relationships are overall to our health and our happiness. Where would it not matter more than where we’re spending most of our time?
And so the people that we’re hanging out with, or even if it’s virtually, the people that we’re interacting with the most will damage us the most and/or help us the most with those issues. And then the second chapter, I focused on like why our employer, why your employer would want you to have those best friends that you named, because it’s really to their benefit, to their bottom line, to your loyalty to that company, to your desire to stay there longer, to your excitement to come in on, quote, Monday morning, to your willingness to kind of take one for the team and do a little extra work, or cover somebody and take someone, you know, have someone’s back. Gallup says you’re going to be seven times more engaged.
ALISON BEARD: So are we just talking about people who you joke around with at the water cooler or over Zoom? Are we talking about best, best friends?
SHASTA NELSON: I think we’re talking about all of that. So I teach relationships on a triangle, and I teach that all relationships start on the bottom of the triangle, at the very lowest levels of consistency, positivity and vulnerability, and then as we practice those three things, as we increase our consistency, positivity and vulnerability, over time, incrementally with people, some of those relationships will move up the triangle. And so when you’re talking about the friend who is like a sister to you, that’s probably a relationships that’s at the top of the triangle. You have high level of consistency. You have history built. You’ve had a lot of interactions, and you share a lot. And you probably have high vulnerability. And it leaves people feeling good, so you have high positivity.
I would argue that you, we need to have everybody that we work with at the bottom of the triangle, meaning, it needs to at least feel somewhat safe, somewhat good, and somewhat like, you know, we know each other a little bit. Hopefully we move up the triangle towards the middle of the triangle, with like our team, with our people that we’re collaborating with regularly, with the people that we sit next to. Hopefully many of us will have one or two relationships at each job, that we can move up that triangle and learn how to have that be a relationship that lasts past that job. And the more important thing is to be really clear about what expectations you have from people at different levels.
ALISON BEARD: Any kind of friendship requires an investment of time and energy. So how do we find that in our busy workday and busy lives?
SHASTA NELSON: Yeah, that’s such a great question. And it’s one of the reasons that motivated me to write this book, because over the last ten years, I’ve been teaching friendships in what we’d call our personal lives, and been trying to encourage people to make more friends and to make deeper friendships.
We see some of the loneliness numbers in our country, Cigna just came out with a big report this year, and this is before sheltering in place, 61% of us were reporting loneliness on a somewhat regular basis. And so the way we’re doing our lives now isn’t working. For the vast majority of it, we don’t feel that seen. We don’t feel that connected. We aren’t feeling that supported. Most of us, I would argue, it’s not for lack of needing more interaction. Most of us have plenty of interaction, potentially.
We’re actually missing the more intimacy, like really feeling known or being closer to people. And so when we’ve been out there talking about why we need better relationships, that consistency piece is the one that people always raise their hand and say, that is the hardest one to make happen in a busy life. Like, I don’t have time to get together more than once every two months with this person, or only talk on the phone once a year with this person, or go on one trip every year.
And that’s why the workplace is perfect, because it’s the closest thing that adults have to what school was like when we were kids. It’s like that consistent place, with the same group of people that we can have familiarity with, and the consistency piece is more or less kind of built in for us.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I’d love to dig into those three requirements of friendship that I talked about in the intro, and you’ve referenced since. Is there an order to how they develop? Consistency seems to be the first thing when we are talking about the office, even if it’s virtually. You know, you’re meeting with people. You’re emailing people, etc.
SHASTA NELSON: Yeah, for sure. I teach them where positivity is the base of the triangle. So at the very beginning, it has to feel good enough to make me want to spend time with you and have that consistency piece. But for sure, when we’re at a workplace, we, it may not feel good at all, and we still have to show up and be connecting.
So our goal in that is that our relationships should always feel more good than bad. If we want the relationship to be healthy, we know from science that it needs to have five positive emotions for us for every negative emotion. And so the more stress we have going on, the more deadlines, the more annoyances, the more, yeah, just kind of over our, like a disappointment, fear, all that kind of stuff, the more positive we need to show up there.
The goal should be to kind of, as we interact a little bit, which is consistency, we should get to know each other a little bit, which is vulnerability, and then it should feel good. It should leave us both feeling empathy or acceptance or just enjoying and feeling good. And so then that should make us want to do it again, which is consistency, which then we get to know each other a little bit more.
So every interaction we hopefully are getting a better feel of getting, picking up clues from each other and who you are. And it should always leave us feeling better. And that loop just keeps happening, hopefully. And those are the relationships that end up going to the top of the triangle. So most of us, when we look at our best, best friends, it’s not because we would have picked them out of a lineup of 20 people and said, like, they’re going to be our best friend. Especially the people we work with. It’s simply that we practice these three things over and over and over, and these are the people we ended up feeling closest to.
ALISON BEARD: And is the idea that, say, I see an initial spark with a colleague, I should try to build along each pillar with them quite consciously?
SHASTA NELSON: For sure, yeah. I think that the more we do this with awareness, you know, so often we feel like friendship is this ambiguous thing, and we feel like it’s just either, either we click, or we don’t. Or if I don’t have a best friend, I just haven’t found them yet, and we feel like it’s this discovery mode, like we just have to date around and find this proverbial best friend who’s just going to know us and love us and be just like us.
And the research does not bear that out. But what we know at the end of the day is, these are the three things that we can evaluate the health of any relationship. So when I go into a company or organization, for example, I use an assessment where everybody on the team answers questions that give them a score of how consistent they feel, how safe that relationship feels on a team. They answer questions that give them a score of how much I enjoy this team, how accepted do I feel, how much positivity is on this team, in my experience? And then the vulnerability.
It almost doesn’t matter, do you like all these people? It’s, are you practicing these three things that end up leading to you feeling seen, which is the result of vulnerability, and does it feel safe, which is the result of consistency? And does it feel satisfying, which is the result of positivity?
And so these are the three things that drive that bond. So everything else we think about a friendship is either an example of one of those three things, like we say, I need somebody who’s funny. We’ll you don’t actually need somebody who’s funny to bond with them, but that might be one of the ways you like experiencing positivity. And that’s great. Everything we name is an outcome or an example or illustration. But these are the three things that we know are the foundation of a healthy relationship.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So let’s go through each of them and give me one piece of advice for how to build it. So positivity first.
SHASTA NELSON: Positivity. We, you have two choices. Always with positivity, you can do something that decreases the negativity. So if there’s something that you need to forgive or set a boundary or say no to, you know, like those are things, or speak up and have that courageous conversation. So sometimes there’s big things, that it doesn’t matter how much positivity you add, if you’re not dealing with that big negative, it’s going to be hard to get that ratio up. So I always stop and ask, is there something I can do to kind of decrease the negative emotion here?
And then the second choice is always, is there something I can do to increase the positivity here? And in the workplace, like one of the biggest drivers of positivity is gratitude and appreciation, celebration. So really deciding, what can I do to help add more joy to this person, what can I do to add more, to leave this team feeling like we all enjoyed ourselves more, anything that’s going to leave us collectively or individually feeling better about who we are, about our team and our job, that’s what we’re aiming for.
ALISON BEARD: And what about consistency? How do I ramp that up – especially in a world where many more people might be remote than there once were?
SHASTA NELSON: Yeah, this is a trickier one right now, because two of the drivers of consistency is proximity and spontaneity, and those are the things that kind of helped us in the workplace when we ran into each other. It wasn’t that we became friends because we had like all this blocked off time together. It was that we sat next to each other. We were interacting in meetings often. We said hi in the hallway. And those are the moments that are getting harder right now to replicate if we’re remote.
Some specific examples that some of us can do as just thinking through, how can I, is there a friend that I need to actually start scheduling more interaction with because we’re not seeing each other in the office anymore, and I want to keep that friendship up? You know, and so what can I do to say to that friend, like, hey, maybe we should end every week for 15 minutes together, like cheering with the end of the week together. Or is there something that we can kind of put in the calendar consistently, so it benefits us without having to keep scheduling it. So anything we can do that we can lock in as a routine is going to give us the scaffolding or the pattern for those interactions to happen.
And if I were a manager, I would be spending agenda time in these virtual meetings making sure that I’m putting people into small groups and breakout groups, or doing team sharing time. I would be having a sharing question at the beginning of every meeting that was not just filler, until everyone got on, and it was as valuable. This is not just, we’re not here just to talk about our services, our products, but we’re here to be a team and to connect and to feel bonded and to be supported. So I would be really making sure that agenda contributed to that outcome for us.
ALISON BEARD: OK, so now let’s turn to the hardest leg of the triangle, vulnerability. You know, really opening up to a colleague, having them opening up to you. That can seem a little bit dangerous at the office. So how do I build on that pillar in a way that feels safe?
SHASTA NELSON: When I go in and do these assessments with teams, vulnerability is always the one that managers are like, oh, that’s the one I’m not sure that I need here in the workplace. And yet, it is the one that receives the highest scores most often when I’m assessing a team, which is really interesting, because we really do need vulnerability. But I think we picture something different when we say it. So we’re picturing two people disclosing their personal lives to each other.
But in actuality, all the things that make creativity takes vulnerability. All the things that make for us wanting to have an inclusive workforce takes vulnerability. Everything that we want people feeling like they’re being celebrated, that takes vulnerability. If we want to learn from our failure and do evaluations and feedbacks forms, that takes vulnerability.
And so this piece is actually crucial, and I would just say it’s, think of it more as just getting to know each other incrementally. And so this isn’t about taking some big risk and bearing your soul. This is less about disclosure and more about feeling seen for who you are. How can I bring more of myself to work and have it be of benefit to this workplace? And that’s probably the bigger, better direction to go, than thinking about personal disclosure right off the bat.
ALISON BEARD: I do want to talk a little bit about some of the downsides or risks that people see in workplace friendships. You know, distractions, cliques, people feeling left out, concerns about favoritism. How do you address those concerns?
SHASTA NELSON: Yeah, I did a big survey when I was researching the book, and had everybody kind of list what they were most afraid of, and favoritism was the number one fear, for sure, and you named several of the other ones. The idea of, what if I have to fire my friend? Or what if my friend gets promoted over me? So there’s a whole slew of risks for sure.
My bigger argument to all of those would be, yes, there are risks. Yes, there are big emotions. Yes, there are possible pitfalls. But you could say, nobody’s allowed to have friends here. You could say, I’m not going to have a friend here. You could say, we’re opposed to friendship. And have an organization that has no friends, and that does not mean you’re not going to have these issues. I mean, that, to me, is the big point, is that you’re still going to feel like you got overlooked for a job. You’re still going to feel a little bit left out. You’re still going to feel like those are just all human emotions, when people interact.
And so you can be opposed to friendship, and it does not protect you from all the fears of the things, the drama that we think – we’re still going to have so much drama at work, even if you have no friends. So my argument would be that if we actually talk about this more, if we train for it, if we encourage it, if we foster it, I think that has the highest likelihood of actually decreasing the gossip, decreasing the favoritism, decreasing the misunderstandings. So the bigger question isn’t, should we have them or not? The more important question is, how do we do this in the most healthy, appropriate way that benefits this workplace and your own personal lives?
ALISON BEARD: It is particularly difficult for leaders, right? You know, can bosses be good friends with their employees? Can CEOs have really close friends when they’re managing everyone? When you deal directly with senior executives, how do you help them solve those problems?
SHASTA NELSON: I start from a premise that says, we know that when you feel sane and supported, when you feel connected, when you feel like you are supported, you have more empathy. You have more creativity. You show up more excited in this world. Like, we know the price tag of loneliness, and we know the benefits of feeling connected.
And if there’s anybody in this world that I want acting out of a place of connection, it’s our leaders. And yet, we have so many studies, I mean, I think that it was like 69% of leaders in one study said that they don’t feel like anyone in their workplace really gets them. And you’ve got all this like loneliness at the top. You know, it has to be lonely at the top kind of mentality. And a lot of us have shrugged our shoulders and just said, well, that’s just how that has to be. And I really push back on that, and I go, it can’t be that way.
We cannot allow for a world where the people that we need making the biggest, bravest, boldest decisions for us are the people who are doing it from a place of lack and fear. If anything, we should be paying attention to our leaders’ connections almost more than anybody else. And so to me, this is a really big leadership issue.
And there’s a lot of different ways to look at it. I make room for the fact that every industry and every business, it might not always be appropriate to have a best friend in the workplace, but we have to look at this and say, what are the ways we can make sure our leaders feel connected? And if that’s masterminds, if it’s grouping managers of similar levels together, then certainly I’m all for that. And if it’s joining other associations, we need to be doing that.
ALISON BEARD: I want to talk a little bit about diversity. So most of us are naturally drawn to people who are like us. You know, Dan and Scott and Amy and I are all roughly the same age. We’re all white, married with kids. We have similar professional backgrounds. Should I, should all of our listeners be trying to diversity our work friend groups? And how do you do that in a natural way?
SHASTA NELSON: Yes, I think that is such a timely question. And my answer would be, absolutely yes. When we see the research, you’re right. I know for white people, the last number I saw is that 75% of us only have white friends. And when we see the big problems that are going on in in this world, like the one of the biggest responses I saw was people that are like, I want to have a more diverse friends group, but I don’t know how to do that.
And the answer should be, look around at work. I mean, if your employer’s doing their job right and hiring for their best outcome, which comes from diversity, then that workplace should be a place where, that gives you the, kind of like back to the point, that’s your school from where you were a kid. This is where you’re most likely to interact with and to get to know and to be there. But even there, we have to be intentional, because we’re still going to gravitate to people who feel familiar to us, and that we recognize more.
But this is a really, really big issue. When we look, when I was doing like the loneliness studies, people of color report having more loneliness in the workplace than white people. They’re telling us that they don’t feel safe in our relationships, and they don’t feel seen for all of who they are. And it doesn’t feel satisfying. They don’t feel affirmed.
And so if we’re hearing them say that, then we’re not showing up as a good friend. We need to show up with positivity, which means we need to be celebrating people who are different from us, affirming them, expressing that, really helping them feel accepted. We need to be consistent, which means we need to build our safety record with them. We need to prove that we’re reliable, that we aren’t only advocates when it’s trendy, that we aren’t only speaking to this topic after a murder, when we are like, we need to be people who say, I’m still in this. I’m still here. And we need to be vulnerable.
We need to be, in this case, it probably looks more like asking questions and listening and being vulnerable enough to hear what we might not be hearing. So a lot of us are showing up with more defensiveness than vulnerability, and we’re not learning in that way. We’re not hearing what we need to hear. We’re not seeing those who we need to see. So I think these same three requirements give us so much wisdom and information to how we can show up and be better allies, better mentors, better friends, better team members.
ALISON BEARD: And of course, we’re going through a lot right now. So, in addition to the racial justice, diversity, equity and inclusion movement, we also have Covid and a shift to remote and hybrid work for many people around the world. I imagine that people who have been working remotely for a long time already, you know, do feel more of a disconnect from people who they were friends with before. You know, I know I certainly talk to Dan and Amy and Scott less than I used to. So how do we overcome that?
SHASTA NELSON: So when I look at the triangle, the friend-timacy triangle, the three requirements, I feel like we, as a remote workforce, have done the consistency piece more or less, like we have put in the technology, the pattern, we know what meetings we’re having. Most of us are having more meetings than ever. Like, we’ve got the productivity channels kind of locked down to some degree. We know what technology we’re using to interact.
Where I feel like we still have so much room for improvement is with the vulnerability and the positivity. I hear from so many people that at the end of the day, they have interacted all day, but they are exhausted by it.
It’s making sure that we’re intentional about all those other interactions and the ways that we have people having fun and being relaxed a little bit more, and enjoying each other, and we’ve got to really brainstorm how to do these other two pieces well. And I think that’s the challenge for managers and for leaders now, is to understand what three things bond people, we can strategically be more thoughtful around what can we do as a leader or manager to help build that positivity piece in, or that vulnerability piece in.
ALISON BEARD: And for someone who’s new to an organization or a team right now, how do you build friendships when you’re remote?
SHASTA NELSON: Yeah, I say, play that new person card. I mean, it’s hard. I think when we show up new, we sometimes want everybody else to reach out to us, and we kind of want to take a back seat and be the observer. And I get it. But think about if you’re moved into a new house, it’s so much easier to go knock on the neighbor’s door, and be like, I just moved in last week, last month. And that is like so much easier than like, I just moved in six years ago and thought I should come introduce myself to you. You know?
Like it’s so much easier to play that new person card. You get like, people are more eager. They’re more understanding. It’s just a good excuse for you to show up and to say, who are some of the people in this organization I would love to interact with? And maybe it’s each person on my team, scheduling a one on one with them, or maybe it’s somebody that I’m going to be interacting with through HR, though accounting, and I just want to like get to know them a little bit, or through IT.
Or maybe there’s a person that I actually want to like someday be in the marketing department, so I want to reach out to them. Or maybe there’s an employee resource group that I’m thinking about joining, and who are a few people who are active in that that I could reach out to?
This the chance to kind of sit down and be a little strategic and just think through, who are five to six people that it would be, that I would feel good knowing I had a bit of a, a bit more foundation underneath me, a little bit more relationship there? And let me reach out to them. And let me have a question or two that are kind of ready there, that makes the conversation feel easier and safer. And you know, in 20 minutes we can ask, yeah, tell me how you got started at this organization. What got you into this industry? Get a little bit of their history. And have you had the same job or the same role your whole time here? Or has it changed a lot? And what are you working on right now that’s kind of exciting, or that’s like the next big thing for you, and what you’re working on? So use those 20 minutes to get a feeling of their history and a little bit of what they’re presently working on. And every email from here on out, you’re going to feel the benefit of having had that interaction.
ALISON BEARD: Shasta, thanks so much for being on the show.
SHASTA NELSON: Oh, thanks so much for having me. I love it.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Shasta Nelson, author of the book, The Business of Friendship, Making the Most of Our Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.