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Stop Pretending Your Colleagues Are Your Family

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"It's a funny thing at this agency," she said. "You've got to be reaaaallllly careful who you talk to. Those people you see every day at work, they have friends you don't see. You catch my drift?"

"No." I felt completely stupid. Was she talking about the Mafia?

My friend shook her head. "Let me spell it out. These people have all worked here for a lot of years. And a lot of years is a very long time. Let's just say that many of them are close."

"I just cannot believe it," I said. "These people seem so..."

"So what? So boring?"

"Well, yeah, kinda." I looked over at another table, at a man attacking some orange chicken with his tie thrown over his suit. There was a folded-up newspaper on the table, which he appeared to be reading as he shoveled.

"Him? No."

"Remember these words forever," said my friend, grabbing my wrist a bit too firmly. "Because I am about to retire, and nobody else will tell it to you like it is. You never know who's sleeping with who in this town. So never burn your bridges, and never assume you know jack shit about anything."

                                                  ***

I wish I could say that I'd made that story up, or that my "friend" was only a single person. But the truth is I've heard the same type of thing over and over again, and it hasn't mattered where I worked, in the public or the private sector. 

Surveys bear this out: Though most couples are first introduced by friends, some meet in the workplace as well.

Of course, there are close relationships at work that have nothing whatsoever to do with sex. Many people have simply worked together for many years, and have a comfort level with one another. Perhaps they're even "office spouses."

Certainly we frequently see movie depictions of coworkers who socialize outside the office too. In fact, nowadays it's almost impossible to watch a movie without seeing colleagues portrayed in this way.

All of which leaves me a little bit troubled. We're all familiar with the obvious issues—sexual harassment, exploitation, favoritism, and so on. But it seems to me that we are far less aware of the severe dysfunctions caused by too much "friendship" at work. Such as:

  • Poor morale 
  • Mistrust
  • Miscommunication or lack of communication
  • Poor decision-making
  • Inability to hold people accountable
  • Outright favoritism

Google, a top global brand and a most-sought-after employer as well, has considered emotional bonds as part of its quest to build the ideal team. As reported by the New York Times, it's found that a certain amount of emotional openness is a good thing at work. It promotes trust, which helps create a sense of safety that employees badly need in order to work productively.

But there is something else employees need in order to feel safe: A strict adherence to group norms. Notes the Times:

"Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather . . . Team members may behave in certain ways as individuals—they may chafe against authority or prefer working independently—but when they gather, the group’s norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage deference to the team."

In a high-functioning team, norms are more important than the personal preferences of an individual. You might think we should call them "core values," but core values are vague. Norms are more like this: When we disagree with one another, I must say so, but I also must do it politely.

You can see how a corporate culture might not function well if employees prioritize personal relationships over the norms of the team. You can't disagree with XYZ, someone might say, because he goes out drinking with ABC almost every night.

Unfortunately, however, the "normal" business tilts decisively toward specifically this type of dysfunction:

But emotional (and sexual) comfort is the psychological equivalent of junk food at work. Indulging those parts of yourself—which really belong at home—destroy the organization just as surely as eating massive amounts of cake and cookies will make you obese and put your very life at risk.

Freud said a long time ago that we need "to love and to work" in order to be healthy and it's just not good for us to try and substitute the one for the other. But people who play out their personal proclivities across the entire workplace—especially from a position of power—are hurting many more people than just themselves. 

We get so tangled up in our shoelaces when we consider thorny issues like this. It's really about professionalism—a word that completely encompasses every aspect of the organization—and yet too often, nobody wants to tackle the thorny issues.

They have to, though. When personal preferences eclipse a results-based culture, nothing less than disaster is bound to ensue.

In short: Don't play favorites.

Copyright 2016 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years' experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.

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