You will like your job more if you make a friend at work

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Here’s some advice for those of you who don’t like your job: Maybe your job is not your problem. Maybe it’s that you are not trying hard enough to make friends at work. People with one friend at work are much more likely to find their work interesting. And people with three friends at work are virtually guaranteed to be very satisfied with their life.

These are some of the findings Tom Rath reports in his new book, Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without. As a longtime Gallup employee, Rath draws on a massive number of interviews conducted by this polling organization.

Rath says a friend who can change your work environment is “someone you spend a lot of time in a relationship with. And you are probably making a difference in that person’s life, too. If the person were gone, work would be less fun.”

Nikhil Rajpal, at Project: Think Different identified a best friend at work immediately: “My friend Will and I go to lunch together every day. When work gets tough the friendship makes it easier to get through the day. When one of us is stressed or had too much work one of us buys the other coffee and we walk around and talk about it.”

Rath has identified eight different friendship roles. No single person can be all these roles at once, and the fatal flaw people make in relationships is asking that of one person — often a boss or a spouse.

A navigator, for example, is someone who is like a mentor. You don’t need to have regular conversations with the person, but when you do, they are very meaningful in your life. A connector is the type of friend made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, for being able to give you a network. And a champion is the type of friend who thrives on your accomplishments and happiness.

The threshold for gaining the benefits of health and life satisfaction from friendship is three or four friends. Here are some steps to make those friends:

1. Identify someone appropriate.

“When I was in human resources I had a lot of confidential information, so it was no surprise that I became friends with the executive assistant for the CEO, who also had a lot of confidential information,” says Heather Mundell, career coach and author of the blog Dream Big.

2. Be open.

On the Internet, where ranting is de rigueur, it would seem that half of all workers are surrounded by idiots. This way of thinking will not find you friends. “We like to think we can size someone up in ten seconds. But often our opinions of people change over time,” says Mundell.

3. Make time for face-to-face contact.

“If someone stops by your cube and says do you have few minutes? It’s nice if you do. Be a good listener,” says Mundell. “Over time, problem solving together and venting will lead to building trust. You should stop by peoples’ cubes and shoot the breeze, too.”

4. Choose your surroundings carefully.

Find an office that encourages friendships — the structure of workspaces, the quality of common areas, the size of the well-stocked fridge — all these factors can contribute to making an office full of friendships. Rath found that you are three times more likely to have a close-knit workgroup if the physical environment makes it easy to socialize.

5. Find coworkers with shared vision and values.

This situation is probably most common at a nonprofit like Project: Think Different: “Everyone is linked together based on a passion for what we’re doing,” says, Raipal. “We all have a strong desire to change messages in pop culture.”

6. Shift your focus away from yourself.

“People spend so much time trying to manage themselves,” says Rath. Formal education focuses on mastery of topic areas, and graduate school allows you to focus on your own interests. But “when it comes to improving our lives,” writes Rath, “it’s the energy between two people that makes a difference.”

This is going to be a big change for most people. Most workers do not make friends at work. But without a best friend at work, the chances of being engaged in your job are slim. So maybe you should put aside advice about finding the perfect job by searching want ads for your calling. Instead, look for a job and an office that facilitate relationships; friendship is your calling.

30 replies
  1. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    This is true. I actually interviewed Sonya Hamlin about this topic. She has written two books about how to talk to people at work, and she has really specific, useful advice on how to make a friend at work. I’ll post it in a day or two. Stay tuned.

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  2. Diana
    Diana says:

    I do agree with you, but I think it is important to differentiate between “work friends” and real friends. Work friendships are generally better off left professional, instead of intimate. While you can cry to your best friend who you’ve known since Kindergarten about a recent break-up, you should probably avoid crying to work friends altogether (just as you should avoid crying at work in general… it makes you look unstable, unprofessional, and out of control). You don’t want your personal life to bleed into your professional life. Plus, if you and your work friend get too close and have a falling out or develop a romantic relationship, your work environment will suffer more than if you hadn’t made any friends at all!

    You also have to realize that no matter how nice, friendly, and sympathetic a work friend might be, you cannot expect them to stick their neck out for you and risk losing their job or miss out on a promotion or a chance to impress your boss. If it comes down to your career or theirs, it’s going to be theirs. You cannot expect a work friend to show a lot of loyalty to you, and you would be doing yourself a disservice to be too loyal to them. It sounds a bit ruthless, but it’s just reality.

    Like I said, I do think having a friend or two at work is a good idea. It’s nice to have someone to go to lunch with, to commiserate wtih, etc., but you shouldn’t expect the friendship to go much further than a drink after work. Work friends are primarily functional. Like you said in your column, they can be navigators, connectors in your network, mentors, etc. But you shouldn’t expect them to loan you money or give you a couch to sleep on if your house burns to the ground.

  3. Working on MySpace
    Working on MySpace says:

    I have work friends that I only really chat with on MySpace. Does this count toward my job satisfaction?

  4. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Diana, those are really good points. I pressed Rath for a definition of a best friend — I was thinking it would be something magical, that provided a way to avoid the pitfalls you describe. But there was no magic.

    I think maybe the key thing, to make the friendship into something that will improve your life, is to have the person fill just one of Rath’s basic friend types. No more than one. More than one and you might be in the danger territory you talk about.

    But I’m not sure. I have to say that I have thought some work friends were more-than-work friends and they turned out to be major disappointments when we no longer at the same office.

    – Penelope

  5. Ed Birch
    Ed Birch says:

    If this generation is only going to stay with an employer for 18 months and leave when things get a bit boring why would they even consider working on building friendships at work. True friendships take time to cultivate. It takes personal interaction. Two items that I find are lacking in todays workforce. Engaging on a personal level, eye to eye is something that is the exception more than the rule.

  6. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Ed, I’m so glad you brought up this point. I mention earlier in this string that I interviewed Sonya Hamlin about how to make friends at work. Her specialty is helping people take risks and make connection and open themselves up to real relationships at work.

    At the end of our interview, she made a comment about how younger people are actually very good at this. They are quick to connect at a deep level. (Maybe because they have so much experience with the lack of inhibition that people have while connecting with people online.)

    Anyway, she thought (and I think I agree) that younger people need help knowing when a connection is inappropriate (like asking the CEO out to lunch your first day on the job). They don’t particularly need help connecting on a meaningful level — as a generation, they’re good at it.

    So I think that the takeaway here is that forming significant workplace relationships takes a good bit of time on the job for people in other generations. Time does not seem to affect younger people the same way.

  7. bauhaus_sea
    bauhaus_sea says:

    omg hear hear hear!!! I could not, could not, agree more. A large reason I left my prior job, working for a certain large software company located in Redmond WA, was that I just had no friends. For 6 years. No one to go to lunch with, no one to coffee with.I was so lonely and felt like such a misfit. I am so glad my hubs let me quit in January. I actually dreamed last night about the job prior to that one, in which I had 6 good friends (which are friends still in personal life). In that dream, they were conference calling me asking how I liked not working. What odd timing!!!

  8. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    I took some time to think about this column, and I realised that this is what I’ve been missing since my most recent job change (I got a promotion in a different department within the same company). The part I am having trouble with is finding the “fit” when I now manage a group who were my peers a few months ago, and I’ve lost the connection to my old department.

    So I’ve taken your steps (it was #1 I was struggling with) and am now looking at people around me who are some of the different friend types to see if there are opportunities there – and I recognise that I am going to have to work harder at this for a little while. It’s kind of like networking, but for your mental health!

  9. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Great point, Joanne. People send me questions all the time about how to succeed as a new manager. One of the elements of success is to make a friend. Tom Rath’s book underlines just how high a priority this should be.


  10. high_flyer
    high_flyer says:

    Good point about having a friend at work. No job is perfect but having a co-worker to vent and share ideas with is priceless. In reality it’s not the job we look forward to each day, it’s the co-workers we enjoy working with. They make the job more tolerable and push us to do better…

  11. Norma  Andersen
    Norma Andersen says:

    My dear i love to work with people who i can makes a lot off friend and help those who should get help by the one who have more than the other. My dreams was to goes and work for the red kors them but i Did not had that skills as the others have. but I have two hands and a heart, because i comes from the poor class just like you and many other who are sitting on the top off the iceberg.
    One day i will meet there. It is just time. I love to write to a friend who undersatnd about this unkind world we are living. I hope you find me a friend.
    Yours truly N. Andersen

  12. Logtar
    Logtar says:

    Very good post, it is right on the money!

    I have found that when I have a good friend at work, the job does become happier however, a bad job, even your best friend cannot help. Getting a job with your best friend can sometimes spell disaster.

  13. i work in a pharmacy
    i work in a pharmacy says:

    everyone gets along great at my work. people are
    smiling ear to ear all day long, joking around,
    trying to prove what a great time they’re having
    and how we all like each other. however, as soon
    as these people punch out, they’re all dead to
    each other. i just don’t get this fakeness. why
    try so hard to be “friends” at work, when we all
    know that there is nothing behind it?

    it seems that in certain professions, like art or music, it would be easier to make friends friends because your work life could become your life life if you love it enough. i wish i had a job like that. in a so called professional environment, i am finding it impossible to make real friends. in fact, i haven’t made any new friends since college, and that was five years ago. it’s really sad.

    * * * * * * *

    I like this comment. People don’t write about this enough. I should write about this…

    Edith, it *is* really hard how to figure out how to make real friends after college. School is so totally optimized for making friends. And adult life is so different than school — work is so different than school – that you have to teach yourself new patterns and new tactics for friendships. It’s a very hard transition period.

    One of the most at-risk groups for depression is recent grads. I tell you this to let you know how common it is to feel like you do – that making friends after graduation is hard.

    It happens, though. It happens slower. And the result, I have found, is that after college, when I have made a new, close friend, it has made me incredibly happy, becuse I know how hard it is to do.

    Good luck, Edith.


  14. sherry
    sherry says:

    Unfortunately, I work in an environment that is very ‘clique’-ish. These nasties are not particularly good at what they do and are very jealous of those that are good at what they do. Unfortunately, these people have the boss’ back. I plan to look elsewhere. It is lonely, and miserable not having a friend to have lunch with or comiserate with. I usually have to leave the buidling during breaks. It is so negative! I was once in a building with up-beat, friendly people. I was happy, healthy and I noticed that my personal life was better, as well. Don’t remain at a job just for the paycheck–negativity spreads faster than anything. For your health and well-being of yourself and your family, find something else. A future buddy may be feeling the same way right now and is waiting for your arrival!

  15. guess who
    guess who says:

    So, as someone who has never needed a huge circle of friends, I can count on one hand the people I actually think of as friends, and they are all people I work with. I know who I can trust, and who I can’t.

    As for “clique-ish”, my office has that in spades, but it is the “over-achievers” who are always looking down at those of us who work just as hard, and yet don’t yield nearly the same results in production. And it doesn’t help that our number one “producer” is so far up the supervisor’s backside that it would take a proctologist to dislodge her! Plus this manager and number one producer are such friends that they are always going to lunch together and discussing things about other employees that managers should not discuss with anyone but the employee in question.

    The world is basically like the sandbox we all played in as children. Nothing changes, we just think it does.

  16. Mark
    Mark says:

    It’s hard enough landing a job at all, let alone finding one that has enough people and the right types in it to make a friend or two. That’s what I love about advice and self-help books. The advice they dole out doesn’t actually have to work in the real-world, it just has to sound good to appeal to the masses.

  17. They know who they are
    They know who they are says:

    Well, let me tell you, when you are in a really small town, it is hard enough to get a job that pays the bill, let a lone one that you can have friends at work besides. Where I work everyone is VERY “clique’ish” as far as the professional staff versus the support staff. You cant really be friends with the professional staff, because you dont have a “degree”, so you are below them, and they are not afraid to let you know it. So that leaves the rest of the staff, and they can’t be trusted with any information you give them, so you dont dare discuss personal things with them, unless you want everyone to know it. No I cant just not work, work isnt always about friends, sure it would help, but keep in mind that the friends at work are not going pay your bills.

  18. betty kaplan
    betty kaplan says:

    I made three good friends at my previous job that I was at for 10 years. We are all still very close.

    I have been at a new job for 5 months and made one good friend who started two weeks before i did.

    I felt that we shared our hopes and fears when we were both new, but now I realize tht she considers me merely a co worker while all this time I have perhaps been too presumptuous to actually consider her a true friend.

    Now I am hurt and will probably back off, since my “friend” has sort of let me know that she does not consider me a friend.

    Yes, work relationships are tricky, when i compare this friendship to those with whom I have shared my life for over 15 and twenty years, my husband, my best friend from college, and a handful of others who mean the world to me, i realize that if I left this new job tomorrow, there would be noone there with whom I would keep in touch. I am saddenned by this, but I need to make a living there, and I realize that at times I have lost my boundaries, cried to a few people andlooked quite unstable. I am still there because my work is quite good as a paralegal and I have a specialized skill in a very particular legal area.

    I am lucky,because I have learned that I must become more professional in order to get the respect that my job performance actually merits.

    The only good thing is that the firm I am in is a bit eclectic, creative, and esoteric, and no one there seems none too stable. I might actually be ahead of some despite my dramatic behavior.

    I appreciate the place because in a sense I feel that I fit in well. but i am quite disappointed that the friend I thought I had made regarded me as a mere co-worker. That was truly an eye opener.

  19. sandip
    sandip says:

    I do agree that friends are for ever and it lasts long.So making friends at working will help to work friendly and easily.

  20. J.Victor
    J.Victor says:

    Having at-work friendships definitely makes it more enjoyable for the 8-10 hours you’re on-the-clock. Sharing jokes, comenting on various goings on and basically having that feeling that someone cares is nice.

    But as was mentioned a few times in earlier comments, you have to understand that your own interpretation of the work-friend relationship can easily differ from that of your “friend’s” understanding – and unless you’re spending lots of time outside of the office as friends, the work-relationship may serve a true purpose but also be limited to office-proximity.

    This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a geniune “friendship” – but it does mean than many of the variables that identify the friendship are based on work elements (deadlines, odd employees, an office tragedy) and may not extend to “outside” factors.

    Understanding and accepting that, perhaps in time, if both parties care to, that office friendship can develop beyond the office – but these kinds of friendships take a while.

    Perhaps a good litmus test as to sensing if a work-friend is also an “outside of work” friend – picture your work-friend sitting at the dinner table at your home, among your other non-work friends and consider if the mix would work – or if there was something awkward that might hinder that interaction. Also, consider what things in your non-work life your work-friends may learn about you – and if that’d add-to or taint your relationship.

  21. honey
    honey says:

    I am an Indian and living in uk since 3 yrs.Somehow I am not able to make friends at work .I am not able to open up .May be its because of different cultures.I dont know what I should do as I dont enjoy my work and don’t feel like working because of this.I am not an introvert otherwise. I can well imagine I would have had great friends if I would have been working in India right now.But I am depressed now.Feel my confidence level is also hampered due to this.

  22. Dan
    Dan says:

    Where I work right now, people seem to be real friends with each other. The founders only hire people they like. I recently went on vacation with one of my co-workers, and a director in a different department volunteered to take care of my dog because she has two big dogs that like other big dogs.

  23. gonzo
    gonzo says:

    I work independently now but a few years ago I had a very stressful job working as an IT manager for a large facility. I wore the stress constantly on my face. One day a co-worker came up to me and said why do you look so worried all the time? Did anybody die on your watch? I realized that I was taking my work too seriously. And more importantly, I was trying to do it alone. We became friends immediately and still get together for drinks today. Bottome line. You need friends at work to remind you it’s just work, not your life…

  24. fc
    fc says:

    It is good to tolerate co workers but remember we are all on a job for ourselves. When you leave that other job you will most likely never see them again.

  25. Anne
    Anne says:

    When taken to the extreme, office friendships can cause alienation. Or perhaps that’s only when it’s between a supervisor & a subordinate. That’s what is happening in my work place and it is creating resentment.

  26. Krystal (the new Helen)
    Krystal (the new Helen) says:

    I love this article. I truly understand everyone’s skepticism but:
    1. This article was sent to me by a work friend who I’ve only known a few months. She has made my work life much more enjoyable and we are having dinner tonight.
    2. I met my very best girlfriend at work several years ago and even when I moved 1500 miles away for 5 years our friendship stayed and is as strong as ever.
    3. I met my husband, who is my world, at work! He is the best man I have ever met and makes me so happy.

    So sure, sometimes people are two-faced, gossip, stab you in the back etc. but in my experience the pros outweigh the cons.

  27. Luiz Flávio Viana da Silva
    Luiz Flávio Viana da Silva says:

    I think it’s quite dangerous to get closer to people at work. Because, if you are friend of a person and suddenly you get a promotion and become this person’s boss, probably, in some moment, this person will think your friendship must overcome your professional relationship and you will surely not be allowed to act like this.

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