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“You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships everyday. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.” – Epicurus

The more time people spend at work or involved in work activities, the more likely it is that the workplace will become the primary venue, or at least starting point, for social activities. After all, the workplace already provides something in common. Friendships and even romantic relationships start and thrive in the workplace. This is especially true in jobs that demand long hours, intense focus on complex projects, or frequent travel.

The need to belong is basic to human beings. We need other people in order to survive as well as thrive. In primordial times, when survival consumed every waking minute, numbers meant safety (not to mention food). Exile from the group was life threatening. In a certain way, this need remains even in the modern workplace, where cooperation and collaboration are often essential for everyone to keep their jobs.

Most of the time, workplace friendships benefit the employees, the department, and the company as a whole. Workplace friendships can make work more fun, which often increases employee satisfaction as well as productivity. Having a strong system of support through workplace friendships can help employees weather the inevitable downs and hard times of work life, making such experiences more tolerable. Such a network of friends can even keep employees in jobs when they might otherwise feel inclined to leave.

When Friendships Turn Sour

Though workplace friendships are very often positive experiences, every now and then friendships turn sour. This can have far-reaching ramifications for the involved employees as well as other team members. Consider the following example.

It didn’t take long for coworkers and peers Robin, Chris, Carol, and Brad to become friends. They had similar interests and tastes, and they often met for lunch and sometimes for drinks after work or for dinner. They became the bedrock of the department, a solid team their manager and their coworkers knew they could count on to shift effortlessly into high gear when challenge reared its ugly head. The four friends incorporated their work friendship into their lives outside work, introducing each other to friends outside of work to create an even wider circle.

One weekend Robin and Brad had a falling out. Unlike previous disagreements that they patched up after just a few days, this one festered into a feud. The dispute splintered the circle of friends, and the work team’s productivity plummeted. Robin left the team and joined another, creating havoc in both. The discord between her and Brad intensified and became the source of much office gossip and speculation.

Brad grew increasingly dissatisfied with conditions in the department and surreptitiously contacted a headhunter to explore opportunities with some of the companies that had been interested in him before he took his current position. Still friends with Robin, Carol and Chris let slip a comment about Brad’s actions. When Brad came to work the next morning, no one would talk to him. When he opened his e-mail, he discovered why. Copies of a half-dozen e-mail messages between him and the headhunter in which Brad had candidly and bluntly described his dissatisfactions with his coworkers, the department, and the company had been forwarded to just about everyone.

When to Step In

Unfortunately, managers don’t have all that much control over how work friendships form or whether cliques develop. As long as employees are doing their work, then there’s no reason or right to interfere with employee work interactions. But you do need to keep your eyes open. Don’t hide in your office or pretend you don’t know what’s going on. Knowledge is power, regardless of whether you use it to take action. There are, of course, times when you must intervene. It’s time to step in when you notice any of the following:

-  Employees are spending more time socializing than working. They can’t possibly be doing what they’ve been hired to do if they spend the entire workday in gossip-and-giggle mode or dissecting last night’s ballgame.

-  One group keeps others from being successful by undermining its efforts, or keeps information from other people and groups. This is a clique, and its actions are counterproductive.

-  Office politics turn vicious, and rumors and gossip abound. A bit of chitchat is not a bad thing. People are curious and often legitimately concerned about each other when they talk about situations and the other people involved in them. When talk turns destructive, it’s no longer conversation – it’s sabotage.

What are Cliques?

Cliques are groups, usually small, that form around specific interests and then exclude those who do not share those interests. Cliques at work can be particularly damaging to other work groups and the department because they interfere with the usual social formations that are essential to effective teamwork.

If you do see that friendships and socializing are interfering with productivity or preventing some employees from doing their work, you might need to distance people from each other. You can split a work team into smaller groups and assign them different projects. You can also take steps to promote new, positive working relationships by realigning project partnerships. And you can model an appropriate balance between socializing and working in your own behavior. If your employees see you standing in the doorway chatting about the guy in accounting who’s dating the senior vice president’s daughter, they will believe it’s okay for them to do the same thing. As trite as it sounds, actions speak infinitely louder than words.

© Gary McClain, Ph.D. and Deborah S. Romaine. All Rights Reserved.

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